Theatre Notes

This page contains notes on getting New York theatre tickets without going broke and reviews of some plays I've seen.

One advantage of living in New York City is the chance to see quite a bit of live theater. I can't really afford Broadway prices, and probably wouldn't be willing to pay them anyway, but there are other options, including off-Broadway theaters and discounted tickets through the Theater Development Fund. (TDF is the organization that runs the half-price ticket booths at Times Square and the World Trade Center. Some shows offer discounted tickets at the last minute.

Chicago has come up with a very nice system: starting sometime between 8 and 9 a.m., they hand out numbers, and take the names of the people who get the numbers. The actual line is formed at 10 a.m.; the numbers translate directly to places on the line, except that if you aren't there when the box office opens (shortly after 10), you're out of luck. This is very convenient for anyone who lives or works near the theatre (the Shubert, West 44th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) or is staying in the area, but it's more convenient than standing in line--especially in January--for everyone: you can easily find a coffeshop to sit in for an hour or so. They sell 13 discount tickets, at $20 each (no more than two per person), then standing room at $15 per person. The seats vary widely in desirability, though I think they're all in the orchestra: last Spring I got seats way to the side, stamped "partial view"; this week I got front row center, which is wonderful as long as you don't object to not seeing the performers' feet (I'll happily trade for the chance to get a good look at their faces), and even has leg room.

Rent's all-night discount ticket line has been replaced by a lottery: people show up at the theater at 5:00 (I think-- if you're going to pursue this, call the theater and double-check). Everyone puts their name on a slip of paper; after checking for duplicates, at 6:00 the box office staff draw names, ask for ID from the winners, and sell them one or two tickets for the front of the orchestra at $20 each. For a real bargain during the summer, if you have time to wait on line, there's the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in Central Park. Tickets can be picked up in Central Park, at the theater, or downtown at the Public Theater.

If you're not concerned with flashy sets and seeing what everyone has heard about, off-off-Broadway can be a very good deal. The houses are small, which means you won't be four stories in the air, wishing you'd brought a pair of binoculars (or trying to follow someone across the stage if you did bring them). These productions tend to come and go quickly--listings in newspapers and magazines, or getting on the theater's mailing list, are the way to track this.

Both The Village Voice and The New York Press contain theater listings, including inexpensive and free shows, and both newspapers are free in Manhattan. The Village Voice listings are also online, which can be handy if you don't have the paper, but I find the printed version a bit easier to work with. (It's also more reliable; every so often they manage to leave out a category of listings on the Web site.)


From time to time, I'll be writing informal reviews of current plays I've seen and posting them here while the play is running (or until I notice that they're outdated); I'll try to discuss both the play and the production I saw.

At the moment, I have reviews of Wit, The Good Person of Setzuan [now closed, but this is a fast update], Chicago, Titanic, and Les Miserables.

In a better world, W;t would be playing to sellout crowds on Broadway.

As it is, I got a discount ticket at the Union Square Theatre one day in advance, a good seat at that (there are advantages to going to the theatre alone: the box office may have one seat in the fourth row center that nobody else wanted because they wanted two or three together).

Just about every line of this play is perfect, from the beginning, when Dr. Bearing tells us that if her life was going to be a play, she'd rather it wasn't a comedy, to the end (which I won't reveal). Discussions of John Donne's poetry, and the significance of every detail--down to the punctuation--are far from abstract: these questions matter to the characters, and they, or should I say the playwright, make them matter to the audience.

Edson's writing passes seamlessly from humor to pain: dying of cancer isn't inherently funny, but it contains as much humor as any other piece of life can, some of it in Vivian Bearing's struggle to keep her dignity in the face of hospital routine.

"Vivian Bearing."
"Yes, I have a Ph.D."
"No, what's your doctor's name?"

Dr. Bearing manages to make a human connection even with the very reserved research fellow, who is far more interested in her disease than in her. When she asks "Why cancer?" his face takes on the look anyone would get in response to "Why did this happen to me?" She explains "Why cancer? Why not open-heart surgery?" and he pours it out, managing to share his passion for those strange cells.

Judith Light stars as Vivian Bearing, through April 9, after which this production closes. Don't give up, though: the Washington production and the road company are both reputed to be excellent.

This is Edson's first play, and won her a richly deserved Pulitzer. She says she has no intention of writing another: there's nothing else she wants to write. If she ever changes her mind, keep an eye on her.

Tony Kushner has done a musical adaptation of Berthold Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan. It's not a sung-through musical: there are four or five songs sung during the course of an otherwise spoken play.

Kushner says (in the program) that he's hesitant to call it an "adaptation" because that implies he made more changes to Brecht's original than he did. I haven't seen the original, so I can't comment on that: I can say that the play is moving, often sad, and occasionally funny. The director has done quite a bit with a small cast (six people, with much doubling of roles, and puppets) and limited scenery and props. I'd be interested to see how it looked with more complicated sets, a larger cast, and the other things that can be done with a larger budget, but it didn't actually need them.

Joanna Liao, who plays Shen Te (the title character), and Jason Quarles, who plays the Water Seller, are particularly excellent; Michael Bell, as Yang Sun, is an all-too-plausible ambitious young man.

The show is playing off-off-Broadway at Wings Theatre (154 Christopher Street, New York, NY, 212-627-2960), through June 19. $17.50 or TDF, and they do take reservations.

I realize most people won't get to see this production; the Wings New Musicals series doesn't run anything for very long. But it's a brand-new work, and likely to be produced elsewhere in the future.

Chicago is a revival of a musical from 1975. It's a good show, but A Chorus Line, an equally good and much more optimistic show, got all the awards that year. Chicago has Bob Fosse choreography (the credit in this production is to Anne Reinking, who was also in the original cast, but it's in Fosse's style; when they gave Reinking the Tony for choreography, she thanked him), good songs, cynical sparkle, and attractive dancing girls and boys. The show is set in a Chicago women's jail. There's little attempt at realism, but the songs move the plot along nicely, and you care about the characters, even though most of them are killers, and fairly straightforward about it. Bebe Neuwirth's Velma is a delight, for singing, dancing, and acting. I wasn't as impressed with Marilu Henner as Roxie, but I suspect that's because I don't like the character as well, not because Henner isn't doing an excellent job. Hinton Battle is doing a wonderful job as Billy Flynn, the cynical defense attorney who believes--with some justice--that he can get anyone off, because "In this town, murder is a form of entertainment," but who is only interested in the money he's making. Ernie Sabella has replaced Joel Gray as Amos Hart, Roxie's nebbish husband, who is all set to take the blame after he comes home and finds a body, until he finds out that the dead man is someone they know. It's a very different reading of the character, in part because the two men are physically very different, but it works.

The show is a delightful couple of hours. See it.

June 1999 note: the cast has changed since I wrote this review, but I gather the show is still a pleasure.

Disclaimer: I saw Titanic in previews, and I gather that the show changed rapidly: any or all of these criticisms may not apply to the play as it is now running. By the time I saw the play (April 12, 1997), they had cut at least half an hour, removing the reason for the sign in the lobby warning of gunshots, and for at least one credit in the playbill.

I went to this one on a whim, after a friend called me on a rainy afternoon and said "Would you like to see a bad musical?" The show didn't live down to our expectations, which were of something like Plan Nine from Outer Space. There was nothing egregiously awful about the show. It was just lame. Rather than walking out humming the songs, we walked out humming "Springtime for Hitler" (after I mentioned that people always think they have a decent idea for a musical, unless you're in a Mel Brooks movie). I recall laughing at a couple of lines, but not what they were.

The hydraulics were impressive, but not enough: I don't go to musicals just to watch the machinery move, and the scenery wasn't especially attractive, however difficult it may have been to make it work. They had solved the "ship won't sink" problem I heard about from earlier in the previews, though what you actually see is the ship tilting, and a black barrier coming up in front of it, to represent the rising water.

There was one very sweet moment: after all the lifeboats have left, Mr. and Mrs. Strauss are having a last glass of champagne. (Mrs. Straus refused to get on a lifeboat because, after 40 years of marriage, she doesn't want to be without her husband.) After drinking, the man silently wraps his champagne glass in a napkin, puts it on the deck (not yet badly tilted), and stamps on it, in an echo of a traditional Jewish wedding.

There were some odd bits of casting. There's exactly one black actress in the group of first-class passengers. She is playing the mistress of a white millionaire. Nothing is ever said about her race. Nontraditional casting can work, but having exactly one black woman there made her stand out: if there'd been several black (or other non-white) actors in that group, I'd have found it easier to accept. Similarly, there's a 14-year-old cabin boy who is played by a woman. It's obvious to everyone in the audience that she's a woman, but nothing whatever is done with this, even though it could have been dramatically effective--her going down with the ship because she didn't want to abandon her male disguise, or even because nobody would believe her when she did.

I also think there's something wrong with a show that keeps having to tell you explicitly, via red light-up message boards, not only what day it is, but where the action is taking place.

My strongest impression during the first half of the play was of the old Airplane movies, in which they spent a while introducing the characters so the audience would care about the disaster. But it was too forced, as were all the broad foreshadowings about making a legend and the unsinkable ship. We all know what's going to happen, we're there because we're interested in the story itself, and they should have relaxed and used that, not kept distracting the audience with the odd fact that they'd made a musical about a famous disaster.

Les Miserables has two problems. The main one is that it's an unintentionally silly show. We kept wanting to laugh at what were clearly intended as deeply moving moments. At the end, Valjean considers fleeing to England, and I couldn't see any reason he hadn't done that years earlier, before it was too late. The tear-jerker ending relies heavily on music, but even through the tears, I knew that "they died and lived happily ever after" was silly and implausible. The other problem is that the Broadway production is tired: the singing is muddy, and I suspect the actors could have played their roles in their sleep. [I should note that I wrote this based on seeing the Broadway production shortly before the producer replaced a large part of the cast in 1997 for the "Tenth Anniversary Production"; I doubt I would change my opinion of the play itself, but my comments on the production are out of date.]

Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 Vicki Rosenzweig

Last updated 3 April 2000.

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