Last night I had the pleasure of a sitting in the nosebleed seats at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater for a production of Ibsen's A Doll's House that had received unmitigated rave reviews that morning. There is nothing quite as gratifying as scoring cheap tickets on a hunch while the play is still in previews, and then finding you're at a hit on the very day the reviews come out. I have been enjoying discounted tickets, courtesy of the Theater Development Fund website, ever since I became eligible for TDF membership - it must be around fifteen years by now. Since I never pay more than forty dollars for a ticket, I can get adventurous about what I'm willing to toss the dice to see. On very rare occasions, if the play is an absolute stinker, I walk out. Most of the time, though, I'm quite happy, or, at the very worst, leave at the end of the evening thinking, "Meh. Well, that was forgettable."
Last night's performance lived up to the hosannas I'd read in that same morning's papers. While it is nice to pay for cheap seats and then, through the mysterious magic that is TDF, suddenly find yourself in Row A of the Orchestra (and this has happened to me more often than you might think possible), I had been warned in advance by the website that I was going to be sitting way the hell up and that there were "seventy stairs to the mezzanine of this historic theater and no elevator access," so I was prepared.
In a way, our altitude was an enhancement. The "doll's house" quality of the revolving set gained a visual piquancy from our being seated that high up. I was reminded, gazing down, of the dollhouse I'd had as a child, of creating and directing the lives of the small stand-ins for who I thought I was going to be when I attained the coveted status of grown-up, and the twinkling charm of a peek from above at an unreal reality. So must the gods upon Olympus see our lives.
My companion for the evening was my most tried-and-true, reliable Theater Buddy, whom I shall call J.W. We are both married, but to other people; my husband and his wife shudder delicately at the thought of subjecting themselves to an evening of the kind of geeky stage delights that cause J.W. and me to bounce up and down in our seats, emitting stifled little squeaks of "This is great!" and happily poking one another with our elbows. Basically, J.W. and I are friends-with-benefits - the benefits, in our case, being that we are the only individuals in one another's immediate circle who consider an evening spent listening to Fiona Shaw reciting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a dramatic monologue to be a fantastic way to spend a Friday night. (Yes...we were at BAM for that one, too. In the second row of the orchestra. Want to see cell phone pictures of Harry Potter's Aunt Petunia, running around the stage pretending to shoot at an albatross?)
If you are a theatergoer who relishes the arcane and obscure, it is essential to cultivate a running buddy of similar tastes. Yes - you can go to the theater alone, and I have done it. And I have enjoyed it. But it is exponentially more fun if you're with a friend who has more or less the same interests and a roughly similar background as a reader. This is not to say that J.W. and I are carbon copies in our tastes. Far from it. While we frequently agree on literary era, we diverge widely on individual authors within that era when it comes to personal preference. (I am still reeling from certain critical remarks he has made about, among others, James Joyce, John Kennedy Toole, and sundry others who constitute my own Lares et Penates. I, in my turn, have gotten downright sniffy about what I consider the dubious pleasures of Anthony Trollope C.P. Snow, and George MacDonad Fraser.) But we share enough aesthetic common ground to make for pleasurable theater-going companionship, and of course, we also share the most important attribute of all, in our case - a strong sense of the absurd and an almost childish enthusiasm for ribaldry.
I have sat next to J.W. on some of the greatest theater nights of my life, and also at some of the worst. On one night that will shine in my memory forever as one of the Highlights of My Theater-Going Life, the worst was also the greatest. The Mint Theater, a tiny repertoire company that specializes in resurrecting obscure plays that have been unperformed for decades, was putting on The Power of Darkness, a deservedly forgotten masterpiece by Leo Tolstoy (better known as the author of War and Peace, and a jolly good thing it was for him that he wrote it, too.) Whom else to call upon but the faithful companion of my Theater Geek expeditions, the intrepid J.W.? Our spouses (whom we always invite, for form's sake - although, to be honest, we hope they won't come, because most of the time they spend the entire time shifting restlessly in their seats and blowing their bangs out of their eyes with heavy sighs, as they glance at the luminescent dials on their watches to see how much longer they are going to have to suffer) had, true to form, hastily invented other things they simply had to do that evening, but wished us joy. And indeed - joy - O, boy-oh-boy, what joy! - was ours.
To call The Power of Darkness melodrama is like describing Charlie Sheen as "someone who might possibly have an anger management problem." The sheer magnitude of the understatement is hardly possible to comprehend, unless one has observed the subject of the statement in all his beet-faced, spittle-flecked, convulsing glory. Let's put it this way - The Power of Darkness is like the Jerry Springer Show, except in Russian peasant blouses.
We knew we were onto a good thing right away in Act I, when the unhappily-married second wife of a prosperous aging (and ailing) farmer enlists her lover, the man-of-all-work on the farm, to help her bump off hubby, so that they can indulge their lust in the master bedroom instead of in the haystack. By Act II, things get even better. The former hired man, now master both of the farm and of his homicidal honey (this is the nineteenth century, remember, and the property goes to the man who marries the property-owning woman) has abandoned all pretense at being a Nice Guy (his bride and partner-in-crime is strangely surprised that a man who would commit a murder might exhibit moral and behavioral shortcomings in other areas as well.)
Having achieved all his nefarious aims, the former hired man now swaggers around all day long with a bottle in each hand, backhanding his former sweetheart if she has the bad judgement to object to his drunkenness, or to his sexual shenanigans with her teenage stepdaughter (and now his, as well) - who is, of course, also the daughter of the man they murdered. This Slavic Lolita takes a zestful pleasure in sticking it to her dear departed Daddy's second wife by flaunting her affair with the fellow who dispatched Dear Departed Daddy into the sweet hereafter (although, to be fair, it's not clear whether or not she's aware of the role the hunky farmhand who married her detested stepmother played in rendering her entirely an orphan.) The lady of the house is finding out the hard way that there's just no honor among thieves, adulterers and murderers. But before she can say, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" it's Intermission, and J.W. and I are gripping our aching sides, gasping with joy and trying not to make the actors hate us any more than they already do. TDF has been kind, and we are in the front row of seats off an un-raised stage; the unhappy actors who are struggling to say their overwrought lines with straight faces are forcibly confronted with the barely-stifled whoops of joy J.W. and I are not quite able to suppress, as One Bad Thing Leads to Another. We clutch one another about the neck, wiping the tears of joy that are streaming unchecked from our eyes, assuring each other that we must, we certainly must, get hold of ourselves...that it couldn't possibly get any worse in Act III, and we are going to prim up our mouths and behave ourselves, right after the Intermission.
We fail miserably. The excesses of Act III transcend anything we have seen before - or, indeed, since. The slutty stepdaughter gives birth to an illegitimate baby, and, for reputation's sake (what reputation, you may wonder?) she and her paramour decide they must do away with it in secret. As the stepdaughter wrings her hands onstage and emotes aloud about what horrible things they've done, what a horrible thing they are in the middle of doing, and what a horrible thing it's going to be to have to live with every horrible thing they've done, the former farm boy staggers off into a dugout cellar carrying the "baby," which an unfortunate slip of the blanket has revealed to be one of those unconvincing celluloid affairs small children leave upended wherever they happen to fall when something more interesting comes along. There is a terrific series of thunks that remind Manhattan audiences of those awful neighbors who used to let their kids jump up and down overhead at all hours of the day and night, and then the former farm boy emerges, wild-eyed and empty-handed, to describe in hilariously excruciating detail how he put the hapless infant under a wooden plank and jumped up and down.
"Oh!" he moans, "How its little bones crrrrunched, as I stamped up - and down - and up - and down - and up - and down - and crrrrushed its innocent little life out! How it mewled! How it pewled! How damned forever is my soul, that I took the life of this innocent babe! Oh, the crrrrunching of its little bones! Hark! I hear it now - crrrrunching!"
This was too much, and we gave way to such thunderous gales of belly-laughter that the actors paused to glare at us, and the people sitting around us, who had been making little sounds of horror and concern as to what was going to happen to the celluloid baby, gave us the dirtiest looks I have ever been on the receiving end of in a playhouse, including the time my cell phone started playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy just as George was telling Martha that their imaginary son had run his car into a tree while trying to avoid a large porcupine.
We were so weak with mirth and so ashamed of our inability to control ourselves that we thought about sneaking out before Act IV, but of course, we did no such thing. So we went on, and shortly attained that giddy, painful stage of euphoria that some of us remember from childhood, when an older sibling or a cousin would pin us down and tickle us so relentlessly that we were begging him to stop because we were afraid we were either going to die or wet our pants. By the time the now-remorseful former farmhand, who has been wandering around with a noose unable (on a farm!) to find anything to tie it to so he can express his contrition by hanging himself was seized by the authorities, charged with his crimes, and deprived of his noose so they could take him off to jail and hang him properly, we were so exhausted that we were barely able to leap to our feet to give a frantically appreciative ovation to the long-suffering cast who had enriched our lives so permanently and immeasurably.
J.W. and I have been waiting ever since for a revival of The Power of Darkness. We would gladly buy our tickets at face value in order to repeat this unrepeatable night of sheer magnificence. But then, it would probably be our last night of happy platonic play-going. The management of the Mint Theater Company has undoubtedly give orders at the box office to have us shot on sight.