I saw my first live, in-person, indoor theater in six months this week, at Theatre 80 in the East Village — a matinee entitled “Different Shades of Comedy,” comprised of two one-act plays plus Tony Roberts reading from his memoir “Do You Know Me.”
I was nervous, especially on the walk over there (I’ve been avoiding public transportation), when I passed through Astor Place, it looked as if it had been renamed “COVID-19 Plaza.” (The sign said “COVID-19 Plaza Regulations.”) But I was drawn to the idea of an actual stage — I’ve been experiencing Zoom fatigue, and room fatigue, and doom fatigue – and I also thought I could use a laugh.
I even pictured the famous scene from Preston Sturges’ 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels,” in which downtrodden convicts are treated to a Mickey Mouse cartoon and laugh uproariously. I always found that scene ghoulish, but it’s the moment when Joel McCrea as a successful Hollywood director realizes that his comedies are just as important as the socially relevant dramas that he has felt guilty for avoiding, because they make people feel good.
This was the third monthly stage production in the pandemic era (simultaneously on Zoom) by Food for Thought Productions, a company founded twenty years ago by artistic director Susan Charlotte. Once I had emailed my interest, it was Charlotte herself who phoned me, to screen me — I needed to have taken a coronavirus test, etc. When I arrived, a paramedic they had hired from Lenox Hill Hospital took my temperature and had me sign some kind of release. Then I was carefully assigned a seat. In a theater that normally seats 160 people, I was one theatergoer in an audience of eight, masked, stiff and spaced apart. We looked like hostages.
I had read the critics’ ecstatic, nearly worshipful accounts of attending recent live stage shows in places like the Berkshires (“Godspell”), Washington D.C. (A live concert of Renee Fleming and Vanessa Williams) and England (“Sleepless,” a musical based on the movie “Sleepless in Seattle.”) I wasn’t going to risk a trip, but this was in New York.
The first of the two one-acts in the matinee was Charlotte’s “Come On,” in which a woman (Jodie Markell) announces to a famous violinist (Stephen Schnetzer) that she is going to break off their affair, and he just keeps on saying “Come On” in different tones.
“Don’t touch me,” the woman says. (a line that felt particularly apt)
“No, no, no”
In the second play, “Commercial Break” by Peter Stone, Catherine is the commissioner of consumer affairs (Louise Sorel) while the husband Harry (Rex Reed) is an advertising executive. She suspects he has a mistress, and says she doesn’t believe his denials, because he is a professional liar. Much of the play is her giving him examples – the smallest size of toothpaste is called “large,” and a color television set that was “65 percent brighter….Brighter than what, Harry? Radio? I’ll tell you what. Sixty-five percent brighter than the people who bought them.”
My response was not worshipful. I didn’t understand why; I’ve felt just as deprived as those other critics. I did, however, enthusiastically applaud – this felt like my duty – and I especially enjoyed hearing the applause of the rest of the audience, all seven of them. I liked it when they laughed too.
Maybe my lack of ecstasy was in part because we all had to be so careful. In the talk-back afterwards, Charlotte explained that she got nervous when the actors in “Commercial Break” sitting on a couch, turned to face one another when they talked. “You’re not allowed,” she said and then shook her head. ” I’m no longer thinking about the art.”
When I got home, I watched that ghoulish scene from “Sullivan’s Travels”