Friday, November 11, 2011

Theater Roulette

You must be out of town. Selection must be made based on trivialities – title of show, proximity to the hotel, or how nice the theater lobby looks when you peek in from the box office. No fair reading reviews ahead of time – just hand over your ticket, pick up your Playbill and hope for the best.

Those are the rules of Theater Roulette, a game that offers roughly the same odds as those experienced in Monte Carlo (37 to 1). But, like all reprobate gamblers, I tend to remember the nights I won big and conveniently fail to mention the times I suffered so badly that I had to leave at intermission.

Mary Katherine and I were in Chicago last week. She was going to be filming a scene in a friend’s independent movie and I was her non-Equity personal assistant. We had some time to kill before the poltergeist attached her on screen, so I tried a Google search of “Chicago theater” and landed on a page for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and a show in their tiny upstairs space called Murder for Two – a Killer Musical. It featured only two actors and one piano. Like the dope who thinks he has a lucky number and keeps putting everything on seven until the rent money is gone, I am a sucker for tiny shows in teeny spaces with miniscule casts and one instrument. Eventually I suppose I’ll find a revue with just a midget and his zither, performed in a broom closet, and I will die straightaway and go to theater heaven. Moving quickly (extra bonus points for speed in Theater Roulette), I bought two tickets for that night. We had picked our color and our number, and now the wheel was spinning. 

It’s such a pleasant feeling of anticipation to go through a day when you know it will end with a Playbill on your lap. When we finally made our way there at seven that night, we were trying hard to keep expectations low. Chicago has a terrific theater scene, but there have been massive highs and lows while playing Theater Roulette in this town.

The People vs Friar Laurence - The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet, a musical comedy (I know what you're thinking, but trust me). It was way too raunchy for our grade-schoolers (the box office said it was "PG-13" when we bought the tickets, I swear), but it launched both kids on a lifetime belief that Shakespeare is naughty and fun and a little bit forbidden, which can’t be all bad.

A production of Fiorello!, a play I’d never read much about (bonus points) in a church-based theater that had the smallest stage I had ever seen in my life, about the size of a roomy McDonald’s bathroom on a road trip, when you don’t even know what state you’re in anymore. They’d built a scaffold for the actors to hang from while they sang their songs, but it was all executed so well that by the end I thought, hey, everyone ought to hang off a scaffold while singing, it looks fun.

Guttenberg! The Musical (exactly as bad as it sounds) on a Sunday night in July. There were six people in the audience. Two of them were the actors’ friends. The remainder was our family. I think I was more tired after the show than the actors, because I’d been trying so hard to laugh and clap loud enough to keep them from Monday-morning suicide attempts. That’s too much responsibility for one audience member.

Pre-Broadway try-out for the Goodbye Girl. This marked the first time I had ever gotten to my seat, looked at the set and knew that the show would be bad. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. It was so awful that the next year, when The Producers came to town for a pre-Broadway run, we stayed away, certain that it would be a bomb, and that pretty much explains why I have a 401k and no theatrical producer credits to my name.

Since I'm on the subject, I've seen some truly awful shows in London, too, including Radio Times, about pre-war music halls in London (why yes, it was exactly as bad as it sounds, but the Japanese tourist next to us really liked it). The Play What I Wrote (why didn’t the title keep us away?) was about Morecambe and Wise, a long-ago comedy duo; it had the audience roaring and us rushing out at the interval.  The only thing I ever remember wincing through in New York was Wal-Martopia, the Musical.  Don't ask.

So, it’s last Thursday night, the wheel is slowing down and the croupier finally calls out the winning number. What happened to us at Murder for Two? We won. Not a jackpot, not a lifetime bonanza, but a truly hefty sum of amazement and laughter. The show is old-fashioned in the best possible sense, at least to me. Joe Kinosian, who looks as if he’s taking a break from his successful career as a silent movie star at Paramount Pictures, circa 1922, plays 13 suspects, sometimes simultaneously. He totally nailed the role of Steph Whitney, a ditsy college student who gets a wonderful second-act torch song. I’m not sure how you act blonde, but he pulled it off. If one of my favorite movies, The Imposters, had a show playing on its farcical 1930s luxury cruise ship, this would be the play. I smiled so hard that my face hurt. And Mary Katherine and I immediately began plotting to see it again when we’re back in Chicago for Thanksgiving.

I remember one night of Theater Roulette most fondly. I’d gotten my first real job, one that allowed me to rack up frequent flier points, and I used all of them to fly my Mom first-class to Ireland one spring, for a driving vacation to her second-generation homeland. On the Thursday before Easter, we rolled into Galway and wandered by a theater that was producing Noises Off. I’ve seen that show many times since, including on Broadway, but that night, it was just another shot in the dark of Theater Roulette. We got to the theater early and slipped into a pub next door to wait for the house to open. Some old geezers were at the bar, complaining loudly that when they were younger, people went to visit the churches on Holy Thursday. We eavesdropped amiably and noted to ourselves that these characters didn’t seem too eager for church visiting themselves.

On that trip, we’d already seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the venerable Abbey Theater in Dublin, so we had high expectations. The play had great actors and expert timing, but it’s the audience I remember most. They laughed, the hooted, they guffawed. They drank heartily at the interval and laughed even louder in the second act. They seemed like people who were totally comfortable with silliness, and I think I loved the audience even more than the show.

My mother and I both were so happy that night, sharing our Theater Roulette winnings with one another. And that, I suppose, is why I keep playing.

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