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A theatre lover wrestles with her fear of lengthy shows
I've often joked that my favorite words are, "90 minutes, no intermission" (or "NMNI" for short). As much as I love theatre, there's something comforting about knowing a show will be brief. Maybe I'm just afraid of commitment, but there's less risk involved. Plus intermissions usually feel like a waste of time. Long bathroom lines and overpriced concessions? I'd rather get on with the performance. However, recently I've seen a lot of shows well over 90 minutes (some twice that!) and I've found myself embracing the long run time, intermissions and all.
It's not as if I've actively avoided time-consuming shows in the past. I'm always happy to sit through an uncut Shakespeare play (although I've seen enough King Lears to last a lifetime). And I do enjoy a good theatre marathon. My introduction to the sport of extreme theatregoing was in 2009, when I saw all three parts of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests in one day. Even at almost seven hours, it was so entertaining that after each installment, I couldn't wait to get back to the theatre for the next one, and I was sad when the epic finally ended. Still, I admit I usually panic a little when I hear that a show is going to be three hours (or more!) with an intermission. What if it's painful? Or worse, what if, despite three cups of pre-show coffee, I fall asleep? (It's happened.) And will I make it home in time for The Late Late Show with James Corden?
When I booked my tickets for the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, I was informed that it runs almost four hours with just one intermission. You can imagine how daunting those words were to me. As I settled into my seat, my mind reeled. What if I have to go to the bathroom before the break? What if I get hungry? What if I just don't like it? But soon after it started, I stopped worrying about when it was going to end. Instead, I let the words wash over me and they became soothing. Outside the theatre, I spend so much of my life in a hurry, but nothing about Long Day's feels rushed. In between the histrionics and revelations, the Tyrones have mundane conversations about their meals or whose turn it is in a card game. That's a realistic part of spending a day with a family. I realized how much I appreciated the leisurely naturalistic pace.
I saw Long Day's in the middle of a five-show week in which every production was longer than two and a half hours. But none of them felt tedious because I was so enthralled. Take Arthur Miller's The Crucible (two hours, 45 minutes), which I saw the next day. When I read it in high school, I was bored, but Ivo van Hove's chilling production, with its special effects, horror movie music, and primitive imagery, had me on the edge of my seat.
With other shows, I love the characters so much I just want to linger in their presence. That was the case with Waitress (two hours, 35 minutes). I loved how Jessie Mueller's character, Jenna, and her friends Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) and Becky (Keala Settle) supported each other. Throw in Christopher Fitzgerald as Dawn's wacky and persistent suitor, Ogie, and I never wanted to leave. Plus I could listen to Mueller sing Sara Bareilles songs all day!
I could cite many more examples of two-and-a-half-hour-plus shows that I have enjoyed of late (She Loves Me and American Psycho come to mind). But the bottom line is, this season has done wonders in terms of helping me overcome my irrational fear of long run times. I know that a show should be as long as it needs to be to effectively tell its story. If it takes 70 minutes, great. If it takes five hours, well, as long as I'm engaged (and properly fed and rested), I'm all in. Besides, I've sat through many a 90-minute show that seemed like five hours. The minutes don't matter, just the number of times I'm compelled to check my watch – ideally zero.
Photo: Long Day's Journey Into Night by Joan Marcus