Last Thursday night in the middle of a blizzard, something happened that’s never happened to me at the theater before. I met a guy. Actually, no, it wasn’t that. But I did meet meet a guy. Up in the balcony, sitting in the seat next to mine. He was very sweet, and we chatted, and then he name-dropped his boyfriend. But.
There was something else.
I fell asleep during a show.
I’m horrified to admit this. To my mind, falling asleep at the theater is the domain of bored dads and oafish boyfriends who’ve been lugged along to the theater by their eager daughters and girlfriends on birthdays and special dates. People with no attention span and no imagination fall asleep at the theater. Boring people fall asleep at the theater.
Well, count me among their ranks, because somewhere in the third act of Present Laughter, the revival of the Noel Coward play that’s running at the American Airlines Theatre, I started to doze. Maybe it’s because there was a third act to begin with, one that didn’t involve much singing, and my poor musicals-attuned brain just couldn’t take it. Like it has an auto-shutoff function—like sleep mode on a computer—for anything that doesn’t involve a power ballad or Gavin Creel or both.
And maybe it’s because I was just exhausted. Thursday afterwork nights in New York City can be a drag to begin with. Plus, there was the snowstorm.
I decided to see Present Laughter because the show was advertising cheap tickets, presumably to fill seats because of the snow. That wasn’t actually the case. The show was really just advertising its rush seats, which it sells every single day, at the exact same price. In short, I could have gotten those tickets on any night. Including one, presumably, that didn’t involve hideous, soul-obliterating weather.
I really wanted to see the show anyway, though, because I love Victor Garber. The 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, for me, is One of Those Shows. One of the musicals that happened in the long darkness before I lived anywhere near New York City, when my only access to an original Broadway cast was the Tony Awards and the original cast album, which I listened to so often that it’s a wonder that I didn’t burn holes in it. Plus, I’ve seen every episode of “Alias” more times than Jonathan Groff, and this was my first opportunity to see Victor Garber onstage. In short, I was excited.
And the first act was delightful. I don’t have a lot of experience with Noel Coward, so this was really my first exposure to his tightly-wound, mannered, meticulously cheeky universe. And Victor Garber was great. Playing a mildly over-the-hill actor at the center of a hurricane of friends, producers, lovers, and hired help, all of whom are, he thinks, conspiring to make his life miserable, his performance was rather extravagantly overbaked. Which, for this character, is just about right. Likewise good was Harriet Harris, who I haven’t seen onstage since Millie, as his vinegar-tongued secretary. But somewhere in the second act, something changed. Or didn’t change. And maybe that was the real problem.
After an hour or so, everything happening onstage started to seem a little… same-y. Garber’s tone from beginning to end, and in fact the whole tone of the show, hardly shifts an inch. The plot loops back and repeats itself. The inevitable… happens. All of this is, of course, for comedic effect, but by the time the third act started, I could have used a toothpick or two to prop up my eyelids. Midway through it, I was doing that thing I used to do in math class where my eyes half-closed, then completely closed, then jerked back open again because the teacher called on me. That thing called sleeping.
My temptation was to blame myself at first. But I don’t think I have a low tolerance for lengthy or challenging entertainment. I like Russian movies and opera, in addition to Aaron Tveit with his shirt off, thanks. Maybe it really was Present Laughter‘s fault, even though I liked it. The parts that I saw while I was awake, anyway. I would recommend that you see it. If only so you can tell me how it ends.