Feeling Cheated at the Theater
This past weekend, we went to see the play HUGHIE, at the Shakespeare Theater. We have very much enjoyed most of the O’Neill plays that we’ve seen (by no means all of the man’s work, but most of the “big” plays.) We always find ourselves with lots to discuss afterwards.
But HUGHIE was ultimately unsatisfying. It’s a two-person play, with voice-over narration of some stage directions. One of the actors (in this case, Richard Schiff (“Toby” from West Wing) has 90% or more of the dialog; the play actually presents substantially as a one-man play. And it’s less than 50 minutes long.
For this, we paid full price — our tickets, as season ticket holders (and therefore, at a slight discount) were $83 each. (We also chose to pay for parking — another $16 — rather than fight the subway on weekends, when many stations are closed and trains are regularly spaced at 20-minute intervals but can get off-schedule by as much as an hour.)
I felt cheated. I felt like I was watching an (excellently crafted) acting exercise. I felt like I was taking part is an experiment — how little can we deliver for “full” value.
Don’t get me wrong — Schiff did an excellent job. His character is a small-time gambler, and a lot of the language he uses is 1920s slang, which he made sound absolutely normal and natural almost 100 years later. After the show, we were able to discuss the motivation of Schiff’s character, and the value of the other person on the stage; we could also discuss a third person who is never present, but who is the subject of most of the discussion. We debated whether the projections (from behind, on several surfaces that were paintings or windows for most of the show, but then started to depict dream-like images for short scenes) added or detracted from the performance (and mostly, we concluded, they detracted). We talked about the great sound design, where off-stage noises were made to see quite real.
But ultimately, we felt like we were being gamed by the theater. That sensation was increased by the fact that the dramaturg’s notes in the program discuss how HUGHIE was the progenitor of many other 20th century one-act plays, such as those by Beckett or Pinter. I wish that the theater had chosen to stage another less-than-an-hour-long play, to balance the one that it did select.
I’ve questioned the strength of my negative feelings. After all, I didn’t come home from STRANGE INTERLUDE (a four-hour play) saying, “Wow, we got a lot of minutes for our bucks on that one!” And I didn’t question the value proposition for other long plays. And we *did* have some things to discuss after the show. And we went out to one of my favorite restaurants for lunner (you know, that meal between lunch and dinner) afterwards.
But less than 50 minutes? That’s too little for too much.