Thursday, July 06, 2006
I don’t like Broadway audiences, or so I have told myself for years: there are too many loud, aggressive tourists who keep chatting throughout the performance. Shouldn’t theater be a quasi-sacred ritual? I was expecting to be annoyed when I went to see a production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer that starred Ralph Fiennes, Tony winner Cherry Jones, and Ian McDiarmid, who played the evil Senator Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels. It didn’t help that the Booth Theater funnels large crowds through a small hallway: just getting to one’s seat is a challenge.
I was surprised by the audience’s rapt attention. Faith Healer is the kind of play that some critics euphemistically call “demanding”: it is a series of four lengthy monologues that each retell the same sequence of events, albeit with Rashomon-like discrepancies. Two of the three characters are already dead, and there is never more than one actor on-stage. It is like the primitive, pre-Aeschylus version of Athenian tragedy. It would be hard to imagine a more static theatrical form. But the audience had an angry, wren-like vigilance, to coin a phrase.
I was sitting in the last row, and there was a man standing behind me. At the intermission I learned that he was a composer who had recently graduated from a school in North Carolina. He had just gotten his first big break: he had composed the music for a show that was going up on Broadway in the fall. Meanwhile, the man on my left had an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish theater and a lot of judicious thoughts on recent productions. I discovered that he was the artistic director of a reputable regional theater. One of his productions is coming to Broadway next year. To my right were two cultured German women. Where were the ignorant, obstreperous Star Wars fans? I had somehow landed not in a mosh pit but in an excellent graduate seminar. I felt a little sorry for the theater people. Were they almost as badly off as scholars or poets? Were they, too, performing largely for fellow practitioners? Is there something special about the back row? Or perhaps it is the play itself that is special. The faith healer himself is a theatrical performer, part priest and part con-man, like most actors. He sacrifices everything, including his family, for the right to pursue his calling.
I didn’t like the production. Fiennes didn’t seem to fully inhabit the character; he didn’t have the haunted, deeply introspective charisma that he has in most of his film work. I felt the same way about his performance in a London production of Ibsen’s Brand. Perhaps he loses interest after repeating the same words night after night. And I think Friel’s poetic gift is unspectacular. But despite these qualms about the production, I like Broadway again.
It must be something about the way they are advertising Faith Healer. When I went to the Threepenny Opera (infamously of great performances gawdawfully directed), I was packed in on all sides by loud teens on a drama-class holiday, old guys crinkling hard candies and ahemming, and would-be theater critics broadcasting their take on every scene. I might be an extra-grumpy person though, because it’s the same at movies, concerts, and the opera, enough that I won’t go unless it’s something I’m dying to see.
How nice to hear that’s not always so!
"Were they almost as badly off as scholars or poets? Were they, too, performing largely for fellow practitioners?”