nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 9, 2005
The Audience is really nineteen playlets (many of them musicals), written by a team of twenty-eight playwrights, lyricists, and composers, woven together into an uneven but striking piece of meta-theatre. My friend Patrick, who came to the show with me, called it A Chorus Line about us, the audience. And, like A Chorus Line, the show does sometimes feel a bit scattered, a little bit too determined to give everyone their equal time in the spotlight rather than tell a unified story. But, also like A Chorus Line, it’s ultimately about loving the theatre.
I am only a little embarrassed to admit that I found myself tearing up a little (okay, more than once) during The Audience—most notably in the song “I Like What I See,” performed by a little boy from Texas (Eamon Foley) who didn’t want to come to the theatre in the first place. As his red-state parents grow increasingly horrified by the not-entirely-child-friendly show they’re watching (think gay Sondheim), young Carson grows increasingly entranced: “It’s like real life only faster / And it means a whole lot more / And though they’re living a disaster / It’s so much cooler to explore.” I think that all of us who go to the theatre as adults had a moment like that in our childhood or our adolescence. I’m not sure The Audience itself would inspire one of those moments for the novice, but for the already converted, it’s a pleasure—a slightly self-referential one—to watch actors playing ourselves as we watch them.
The premise is simple: the play takes place in the orchestra section of a Broadway musical on closing night. Its characters are forty-three audience members, two ushers, and the writer, who huddles anonymous in the midst of the self-absorbed crowd, trying by force of will to get them to pay more attention to his work than their own personal dramas. The audience members include the Broadway-house stereotypes you might expect—Japanese tourists, four old Jews (the program’s title, not mine!), an out-of-town family, a first-date couple, three secretaries from Staten Island on a girls’ night out, two aspiring actresses, and more.
The execution of the piece, which is full of Broadway-veteran actors, must have been almost mind-bogglingly complex. Because, you see, the forty-three audience members, two ushers, and playwright break down into nineteen groups of characters, each of which has back story, internal rifts, and a story arc developing during the play we are watching. Some of those stories are impacted by interaction between the groups; some of them occur in internal group dynamics; some of them occur in song. All of them occur while these forty-six people are nominally watching (and reacting appropriately to) a Broadway musical with two acts and an intermission. And remember, the dialogue for each of these groups was written by a different playwright. And there are eleven musical numbers, each featuring between one and forty-six performers. Director/conceiver Jack Cummings III gets points for sheer bravado and inventiveness.
Some of the high points: Adam Bock’s “The Japanese Women,” which delights even though the characters are speaking Japanese ninety percent of the time, and Nancy Shayne’s “The Out-of-Town Parents and Their Manhattan Daughter,” which is sad and subtly creepy while being all-too-familiar. The most toe-tapping show-stopping musical number is definitely “Little White Lies,” written by Lewis Flinn and Brian Crawley, and performed by Gerry McIntyre, an upper-crust African-American yuppie who’s not enjoying himself overmuch at this play, with the three Japanese women (Yuka Takara, MaryAnn Hu, and Mika Saburi) as Tokyo-meets-Motown backup singers. On the down side, a lot of the playlets, taken individually, do feel a little contrived, wrap up a little too neatly, or just plain don’t pan out.
Kathryn Rohe’s pitch-perfect costumes are worth singling out—her sharp eye for characterization through fashion says more about these people than an extra half-hour of exposition.
Yes, some of the individual stories work better than others; yes, some of the songs and some of the performances are much stronger than others—but the whole thing somehow comes together to be much more than the sum of its parts. It’s a true theatre-lover’s evening of theatre, giving us the chance to look into our own minds and watch a group of artists grapple with the question of what we are doing here. Not in any big, existential way—but the very literal question of what we, the audience, are doing here, in the theatre, watching a musical. Why do we go? Why do we care? Do we care? What is the act of alchemy that brings a group of disparate individuals together in the dark to watch imaginary strangers sing and dance a few feet away? I’m not sure The Audience answers any of these questions in an earth-shattering way, but the pleasures of asking them, and of watching a representation of one’s own experience as a theatre-goer, are considerable.