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A theatre critic's tribute to 90-minute, intermissionless shows
I wonder how many contemporary playwrights take into account the joy that suffuses a playgoer's heart when an usher intones, "Ninety minutes, no intermission." Over the past decade, the rise of NMNI shows has trained me to respond to this time frame with Pavlovian enthusiasm. If I sign up for some Shakespeare, or one of the modern behemoths (Williams, Miller, Hellman, Albee, Kushner, et alia), I know I'm making a serious commitment -- one worth pledging. But with a new author and an untested play? A lengthy run time can smack of hubris and risk a mass exodus of defectors. Whereas second-acting used to be a favored strategy among impecunious fans, today's theatregoers, assaulted by a galaxy of competing media 24/7, are all too prone to become first-acters.
Much of the rationale for entr'actes, such as the need to rearrange the furniture, is fast disappearing, given the ingenuity of set designers (consider the fleetness of Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility-on-wheels) and also the growing sophistication of video projection (Anastasia, anyone?). We no longer have to put up with the hauling about of cumbersome set pieces -- a convention which even the drawing-room comedies of the 20th century did their best to skirt.
Of course, onlookers' appreciation of a reasonable time span is rooted in biology. Who would not prefer to skip the running-of-the-bulls phenomenon that is the mid-show race to the restroom? I consider it my professional duty to head the pack, since I can't very well focus several hours in if…distracted. Although a number of venerable Broadway theatres have updated and expanded their facilities of late, the ratio is still not propitious, especially for us females. (I always find myself wondering how the women of the early 1900s -- the more corseted of whom required full-time dressers -- coped with their voluminous, trailing skirts!) As for Off-Broadway? I'll just mention the setup at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which requires those in need to climb onstage during the break -- surely the stuff of mortifying nightmares.
Urological concerns aside, an intermission -- which, fittingly, fuses "between" with "let go" -- interrupts the dramatic flow. This enforced time-out can be intrusive as well as disruptive, because you are sure to be subjected to your neighbors' assessments of how it's going.
Kudos are therefore due to contemporary writers who have managed to address complex issues with both celerity and depth -- foremost among them Lucas Hnath, who has made such quick work of The Christians, Red Speedo, and A Doll's House, Part 2.
That said, there are plenty of brave modern playwrights I respect for "going long," like Annie Baker, an aficionada of the seemingly endless pause. Her thematically appropriate lulls in The Flick may have prompted audience walkouts, but the play ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. On the other hand, I'm not keen on a new trend Baker has evidently embraced: inserting an unannounced scene during intermission. I'm still in mourning for having missed Lois Smith's interstitial curtain speech amid John (was the title meant as a warning?). Bathroom sprinters at the recent revival of Suzan-Lori Park's Venus were likewise deprived of an engaging and germane scenelet between acts.
Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has a great ploy for retaining audience members through a lengthy production: feed them! Inspired by the Asian theatre tradition of prolonged pageants at which attendees are free to wander in and out, Iskandar has upped the comfort quotient by actually providing sustenance: a vegan feast for the six-hour, 48-author The Mysteries at the Flea and an Ethiopian repast for a recent Mfoniso Udofia double bill at New York Theatre Workshop.
So, living playwrights: We appreciate your desire to give full rein to your dramatic imperatives, but could you also keep in mind some of our human limitations? "Remember the ladies" in particular, as Abigail Adams once adjured, and forgive us all our sputtery attention spans. Whatever lengths you go to, if you keep us rapt, we'll keep coming back.
Sandy MacDonald writes about theatre for Time Out New York, TheaterNewsOnline.com, and The Boston Globe.