photo by Chad Batka
Phillipa Soo as Natasha in the immersive staging of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”
Spending several hours a week in the dark with actors and hundreds of strangers is what theater critics do.
No news flash in that — or that it’s my job to review what’s on stage.
But is it also my task to assess what’s happening around me in other seats? In other words, to make the crowd response part a review.
Maybe. Or not.
As a rule, I avoid commenting on the audience, since you don’t know who’s in those seats.
It’s no secret that press performances for shows tend to be stuffed with friends of the production and the producers.
“If someone’s overly enthusiastic or what I like to call overlaughing, he’s probably an invited guest,” a theater publicist recently told me.
So I try to look beyond the pros (as in, “the audience went wild”) and the cons (as in, “masses fled at intermission”).
Better to focus on performances, then, and not the crowd.
Then again, these days, productions on and Off Broadway are determined to get the audience in on the act.
“Immersive stagings” have been around for ages. But this style has heated up recently thanks to successful works.
Like the Imelda Marcos disco-dusted musical “Here Lies Love,” which swept the audience up in the action, and then made them move and groove on cue.
The same goes for terrific Tolstoy-inspired pop-rock opera “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” which runs two more weeks in the Meatpacking District.
The audience becomes part of the whole experience at “Here Lies Love,” the musical about Imelda Marcos.
Actors are often in your face and at times at your table. Ironically “Natasha’s” big news story came thanks to a dust-up between two audience members — an obnoxious yakker who wouldn’t shut down her iPhone, and a self-styled vigilante (and, as it happened, critic) who got so annoyed with her that he chucked her cell.
The audience unwittingly became the star attraction.
At other shows, theatergoers intentionally get pulled onstage for a cameo.
It was part of the shtick in Bette Midler’s “I’ll Eat You Last.” It’s part of the fun at the musical take on “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which wraps tonight. And the parody “Point Break Live!” casts the FBI dude Keanu Reeves played from the crowd and relies on cue cards.
The Off-Broadway musical whodunit, “Murder for Two,” which closes next Sunday, also depends on the crowd.
The night I was in the audience, I got pulled up on stage to play a dead body. I can’t say that was much fun (I prefer the sidelines to center stage). Or, for that matter, that it made me appreciate the hard-charging show any more than I did.
But I’ll take being an involuntary recruit to putting up with annoying audience behavior — and there’s plenty of it — that would earn zero stars.
I still cringe remembering the woman seated in front of me at “Dreamgirls” who had an ongoing phone conversation. It was like she’s performing her aria — “And I Am Telling You That I’m Not Disconnecting.”
Then there’s late arrivals who step on your feet and block your view — you know who you are. Even if shows are spotty, I applaud the New York International Fringe Festival, now in progress through next Sunday, for the fact that they don’t let anyone in who’s late. No ifs, ands or buts. Critics are no exception.
Ironically, extremely positive audience behavior brings its own challenges. Automatic screaming standing ovations have diluted this form of appreciation.
But it’s all part of the communal experience, and it’s what makes theater alive, exciting and unpredictable.
I’m glad to be in the dark with the rest of the audience.
But I don’t need to shed light on them.