I Don’t Know About You, But I’m Feeling 42: The Times Square Theater

DSC03648I recently got a super cool peek inside the Times Square Theater, the last of eight houses on 42nd Street to see rehabilitation since city/state seizure (and Disney) happened in the 1990s. Theater architecture geeks will recall that the seven other spaces on the Deuce have met a variety of ends, some as Broadway theaters, some as converted commercial spaces, but that all of them remain preserved in some essential way – PRAISE BE!

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The Times Square is poised for something between legitimacy and conversion: Currently under construction, it’s set to house something called BROADWAY 4D. Described as “a 3D, film-enhanced show incorporating in-theater special effects,” it will showcase “songs from Broadway musicals by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Weber” to be performed by “stars of Hollywood and the Great White Way.” (All this from the Post –– read more HERE.) As for that fourth dimension, there will also be “scents, climatic changes and extravagant sound.” Oh my!

Before major construction got underway, I snapped some pictures of the wonderful space. Scaffolding mars the view in a major way, but use your imagination so see beyond the metal rods to a house that vibrates with history, spirit, and capital-B BROADWAY!

Here’s a view of the theater from the south side of 42nd Street:

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You’re probably under the mistaken impression that you saw Spider-Man at the Times Square –– the theater’s long, beautifully columned exterior sits adjacent to the small façade sported by the Foxwoods (recently home to Spidey and Co.). But the Foxwoods actually sits on 43rd Street; its 42nd Street entrance is really just a hallway that extends halfway up the block where theater proper lives. The Times Square fits cozily into the elbow created by this “neck” entrance. See my hideous, completely not-to-scale drawing if you’re confused.

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But why stare at maps when there are real-life gems to see? LET’S GO!

First, check out the wonderful old stage space and the maw of the proscenium, home to the original productions of Noel Coward’s Private Lives and the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band…

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… but be careful not to fall into the trap space!

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Back in the day, harried chorus girls scampered their way through this door up to their dressing rooms…

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… and beautiful sets hung in this gaping fly space.

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Here’s a view from the stage, out at the house. JAZZ HANDS!

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A wider view from house right of the orchestra…

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Anxious playwrights — now long gone — paced here, at the back of the house…

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More delights await upstairs…

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… in the mezz!

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Lift a small window on the theater’s second level, and you get a closer look at the columns on the facade.

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Back downstairs, through the rear-house exit…

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…is the facade. That floorspace in the right of the shot is actually 42nd Street sidewalk.

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And there you have it. She’s certainly in need of some serious work, but it’s exciting that the ongoing repairs are in service of making the space a theater and not, y’know, a Burger King. (No joke there: The chain was one of several… shall we say interesting tenants… that expressed interest in the Times Square –– read about that saga HERE.)

Fare you, well, Times Square Theater, and we’ll see you on the other side!

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Onstage at the Times Square Theater

READ MORE ABOUT OLD THEATERS ON 42ND STREET!
— Eat wings at the old LIBERTY THEATER — READ! READ! READ!
— The AMC is actually an OLD BROADWAY THEATER — READ! READ! READ!

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Best of 2013!

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theater-words is a little late to the game here—hello, January 5—but no matter: Let’s do some “best of”-ing! In descending order, the shiniest theatrical jewels of the season were…

1. FUN HOME, Public Theater
Perfection. This Tesori/Kron/Gold masterpiece, an expert adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s glorious memoir, is the kind of musical I’d take to a desert island. Multiple viewings are a must to fully appreciate it. #broadwayismissingout #pulitzermaterial (MORE)

2. MATILDA, Broadway
It’s all been said. The best. (MORE)

3. THE APPLE PLAYS, Public Theater
Taking in these four plays over one cold weekend in December was one of the major highlights of my theatergoing life. Why can’t all shows be this sensitive, wrenching and incredibly acted? (MORE)

4. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, West End via Menier Chocolate Factory
Ok ok, I technically saw a video broadcast of this astonishing production, but who cares: The wonderful actors at the center of this Sondheim classic gave it the richest, most soulful core an audience could ask for. Many tears were shed. (MORE)

5. THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Broadway via American Repertory Theater
A classic play somehow became more itself thanks to an unconventional staging. Everyone involved needs to clear some room on their awards shelves… (MORE)

6. THE FLICK, Playwrights Horizons
The idiot audiences who stormed out of this epically intimate new play should stay out: Annie Baker’s melancholy, spare style is frikkin’ awesome.

7. BETRAYAL, Broadway
The vitriol aimed at this fantastically sexy production was entirely unwarranted. Great play, great actors, great gay subtext.

8. DOMESTICATED, Lincoln Center Theater
A fantastic, no holds barred night at the theater. Bruce Norris’s provocative message went down easy thanks to the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings.

9. HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway via La Jolla Playhouse
The show with the porno title was actually a sweet, tear-jerker of a Broadway musical. Buy the CD—the score is wonderful. Oh, and can I lead up the Alison Case fan club? K thanks.

10. HERE LIES LOVE, Public Theater
David Byrne, Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson had a kick-ass, disco love child in this killer, environmental show. A musical to convert those who say they hate musicals!

(N.B.: PIPPIN and VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE would’ve definitely made the cut—with Andria Martin and Kristin Nielsen how could they not?!—but I saw them out of town in 2012, and rules are rules!)

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A great crop, no? Totally absent, however, are more formally experimental plays. The “riskier” shows I caught this year largely left me cold, and not just because more adventurous companies can’t pay heating bills. Here’s hoping next year’s list has a few cracked-out, crazy entries!

LET’S GET GOING, 2014!

A Scott Rudin, Patrick Healy Kerfluffle

Whoa! Producer Scott Rudin has some fightin’ words for New York Times journalist Patrick Healy in today’s ABCs.

Scott Rudin Patrick Healy Testament of MaryPresumably the tiff has something to do with this interview Healy conducted with Testament of Mary playwright Colm Tobin. Perhaps Rudin chafted at Healy’s contention that The Book of Mormon, another Rudin show, was somehow financing MaryWhat do you think?

 

From the Chekhov Files

Neva Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeIn a supremely strange synchronicity, two plays that riff on Chekhov opened this past week. One would be occasion enough, but two? Such, apparently, is the power of that old, Russian dramatist. He is a seagull, indeed!

The plays couldn’t be more different. Broadway’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, is a belly laugh a minute, while Guillermo Calderon’s Neva, at the Public, is more serious and political. Both, of course, bring up the classic, Chekhovian themes of disaffection, angst, and boredom, but their methods for doing so couldn’t be more different.

Set in the present day, Vanya… follows three middle-aged siblings, each unhappy in his/her own way. Named after Chekhov characters by their professor parents, the siblings (played brilliantly by David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Sigourney Weaver) spin a hilarious roller coaster of a tale, one where coffee cups are smashed, house cleaners predict the apocalypse, and Snow White costumes are pulled from the closet. All the madcap hilarity kicks into something profound and moving by the end, but the journey there is a smile from ear to ear.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Broadway Kristine Nielsen Shalita Grant

As for the other corner, you may laugh occasionally at Neva, but that’s not the focus of the evening. What is the focus is Olga Knipper, the widow of Mr. Chekhov. Appearing at a dimly-lit rehearsal room on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Olga spends the play talking with two other actors about her late husband, how he died, what it means to make art, and how she both needs and despises her public. Calderon’s theatrical dish is full of ingredients similar to Durang’s, but his proportions are wholly dissimilar.

Neva Public Theater

Were Messers Durang and Calderon in correspondence as they wrote their plays, making sure they focused on distinct turf? Assuredly not, but seen together, their productions show the singularity of an artistic voice: Two writers can start on similar turf, but they almost certainly will end up somewhere different.

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PS– I wrote about Vanya… last fall when it played the McCarter Theater… Check out that post HERE.

First Blush at “Cinderella”

Laura Osnes Cinderella Broadway

For me, the coolest part of Broadway’s Cinderella is its unfamiliarity—after all, how often does one encounter a golden age score for the first time in a full-blown, Main Stem production?

My early memories of other Rogers and Hammerstein classics like The Sound of Music and South Pacific are shrouded by the mists of childhood; I can no more remember the first time I heard “Edelweiss” or “Cockeyed Optimist” than I can remember my first steps.

That kind of familiarity can be comforting, but it also robs you of the exciting moment of first blush, when your ears perk up and you think, “Wait a second—what was that?” (I’m reminded of the quote—was it Roger Ebert who said it?—that the greatest filmgoing experience would be to encounter one’s favorite movie for the first time.)

Cinderella, first produced for live TV in 1957, has never played Broadway. This debut, directed by Mark Brokaw with a new book by Douglas Carter Bean, spices up the well-known story a little bit, but mostly it’s a classic-feeling enterprise.

The centerpiece of that classicism is the R&H score, which, though not as thrilling as R&H’s more well-known works, still yields pleasures. And to hear it fully produced, fully sung, and fully orchestrated—on first listen—counts as a real blessing.

True R&H fanatics surely already know every song, but for the rest of us, Cinderella might as well be a time machine back to an earlier era.

Photo, above, by Carol Rosegg

Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein

R&H

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
Boston, Part I: ART’s Pippin
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A Clearer Day: 
Broadway’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

A Broadway Detour in “Far From the Tree”

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s brilliant, brick-heavy Far From the Tree is a book seemingly far removed from the world of theater. Subtitled “Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” it chronicles the pains and triumphs of people who create offspring profoundly different from themselves; Solomon’s categories of dissimilarity include deafness, criminality, transgenderism, and dwarfism, among others. His ultimate message in so much heartbreak is an uplifting one: most people, he says, can love any child, no matter how disabled; indeed, the pain in loving them is made all the greater for being so hard-won. “There is a psychic proximity in desolate times that happiness does not match,” Solomon writes, adding later, “The happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies.” The book’s 700 pages demand a significant time investment, but I found it more than worth my while. It is the truest book I have read in quite some time.

But back to the stage—one of Solomon’s chapters is “Prodigies.” It intersects interestingly with the theater by profiling composer Scott Frankel, himself a former child prodigy. You probably know Frankel for his Grey Gardens score, but his work will be back on the boards this summer, when his Far From Heaven opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Frankel’s story of growing up different is fascinating, and I’ve included a few excerpts below. Here’s what Solomon writes:

Scott’s first piano teacher knew that Scott had a remarkable talent; Scott knew, too. “There’s something palpable when your abilities fill you with a divine sense of fate,” he said. “It instantly separates, even alienates you from your schoolmates.” Playing for his parents, “I began to think they liked me for what I could do, perhaps to the exclusion of who I was. The pressure made music an unsafe area. My partner and I had people over for lunch recently, and one asked me to play and I said, ‘No,’ and I sounded really rude, and I felt that rage again. I can’t shake it”…

When he told his parents he was gay, they were livid. “I resented the parochial affection,” he said. “You get the whole package. You can’t pick the shiny bits from the other bits.” In his twenties, Scott became so angry at his parents that he stopped writing music. “Their interest made me want to eat the baby,” he said, “to deprive them of something to pimp and market for their own purposes. Of course, it had the side effect of shooting myself, career-wise and ethos-wise, in the foot. I was completely unmoored, and nothing made sense anymore. All I had was drugs, sex, and therapy.” Scott went ten years without touching a piano. “Yet music kept encroaching. I would be near a piano and feel emotions I couldn’t shut out.” Finally, Scott began composing the musicals that propelled him to Broadway…

Read the whole book for the full story—it’s fascinating, tear-jerking stuff… and it just might offer enough material to bide the time to Far From Heaven‘s May premiere!

photo of Scott Frankel (below) by Zack DeZon

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CHECK IT OUT…
Wendy Wasserstein and Susan Sontag, on the page and onstage
— Billy Elliot, Trojan Horse?

 

Ye Olde “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

In honor of the new Scarlett Johansson/Benjamin Walker Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now on Broadway, here’s a blast from the Tennessee past: scans from the original, 1955 Cat Playbill.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Already nostalgic for the now-demolished Morosco Theatre, where this Cat prowled? Don’t be—the Marriott Hotel now in its stead is a far more important architectural, artistic, and cultural space than any classic, Broadway house. Definitely.

But enough of that. Turn a few pages and you stumble onto a hilarious diatribe about “real” stars and “parochial” stars—click the image for a better (but not great—sorry!) view. (Mr. Burr thinks that narrow-minded Broadway is rife with the latter kind.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

After that little treat comes a reminder of the usefulness of Google, the “What’s What” section.

Scan Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

The title page is similar to today’s equivalent…

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… but cast bios were, without question, more arful and well-crafted. Can we PLEASE lose the laundry-list style now in vogue and return to these entertaining write-ups?

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

On the back cover, of course, is a cigarette ad. Wasn’t it nice back in the days when smoking was good for you?

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Those were the days…

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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
— The Ghost of Salesman — classic designs by Jo Mielziner
Arcadia and the Grid

Steam Heat: “Picnic”

The hottest line on Broadway is… drumroll please…

Picnic Maggie Grace Sebastian Stan Ellen Burstyn William Inge Sam Gold Roundabout Theatre Company

“We’re not goin’ on no goddam picnic.”

Indeed!

(I think Ellen Burstyn, left, agrees with me.)

photo by Joan Marcus.

I Smell a New Season…

There are few sights quite so tantalizing as that of a Broadway load-in…

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Are you salivating yet?

BRING IT ON, BABY! 2013 GONNA REPRESENT!

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LIKE WHAT YOU SEE? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
— The 2012 Spring Season: Start Your Engines
— Something’s Coming
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Roundabout Does a Roundabout

I’m pretty much definitely the only person who finds this interesting (am I? am I?), but it seems that the Roundabout Theatre Company is doing a bit of rebranding. Witness the swanky new poster pasted on 44th Street…

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Cool, right? It feels current, stylish, casually affluent. The abstract-y comedy/drama masks, the mod coloring, the artful nod to diversity, the focus on YOU (“exposing you,” “introducing you,” “it’s about you”)–it’s a far cry from the more traditional lettering more commonly associated with this reputable, classics-heavy company:

Unknown

Does this advertising shift herald a new programming focus?

Time shall tell…

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
Poster Analysis: “Anything Goes”
Poster Implants
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Memory, Back Turned to Moonlight… and Sunlight

You never know what your dad’s going to find digging through the attic…

cats vintage ticket

Cats had opened some two months prior, on October 7th.

If this ticket could talk… … or meow…

Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Design by Des

Think ye on this…

Taking in the rock concert that is Jesus Christ Superstar, I was struck how similar its design is to Jersey Boys. (Both musicals are directed by Des McAnuff.)

Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Mr. McAnuff has shown a similar fondness for two-tiered design in The Farnsworth Invention

and for trusses in The Who’s Tommy:

Mr. McAnuff has scores of other shows with wholly different set designs, but do these four entries point to some kind of visual style?

first two photos by Joan Marcus

The Katharine McPhee Entrance

Yes, I enjoy entering Times Square at the “Katharine McPhee Subway Entrance” on 43rd, and yes, I quietly moan “Let Me Be Your Star” each time I ascend those steps.

Not weird at all.

Right?

Tony Awards Dress Rehearsal

Tony Awards

Early Sunday morning, I experienced one of the cooler and more bizarre events in town: the Tonys dress rehearsal. On the one hand, it was mostly what you’d expect—a fun, backstage-ish peek at a major (?), live awards show.

But at the same time, it was also a hilariously and insanely awkward masquerade. During the rehearsal, the real nominees aren’t present, so stand-ins are hired to play their parts. In an effort to help make everything as real as possible, these “nominees” actually go onstage to accept a “Tony” when, at random, their names are drawn.

Simple enough, right? Wrong! Instead of making quick dummy speeches, almost all of these “winners” delivered heartfelt, emotional, and passionate monologues, never once winking at the audience or acknowledging they weren’t actually the winners. These “victors” gave shoutouts to castmates, thanked their playwrights, and sometimes spoke for so long they had to be drowned out by the (canned) orchestra. I cannot begin to communicate to you how uncomfortable and hilarious it is to watch people take such a silly job so seriously.

“Andrew Garfield,” for example, waxed poetic about how amazing it is to “get out and put all my baggage onstage every night.” The sound designer from End of the Rainbow mused, “I feel like this is the gold at the end of one rainbow, and the beginning of another!” “Judith Light” felt “such light and warmth from her Broadway community,” and “Elizabeth A. Davis” eloquently reminded us that “Everyone on Broadway is one of the most talented people.” One stand-in who played a multi-Tony-winner ended up onstage several times, so when he seriously pontificated that he’d “had the honor of being on this stage before, and it gets better every time,” the audience laughed uproariously—and not with him, but at him!

The word for all this self-seriousness, really, is “kitsch,” the great German term for “an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art,” the real actors being the originals, the stand-ins the tasteless copies.

Awkward!!!

The Horcrux of the Issue

Bloody Hell! What is it with Brits and audience interaction?

Both the current Potted Potter and One Man, Two Guvnors—imports, the lot of ‘em—generously partake of this most dangerous of devices.

If you’re like me, you want your actors engaged onstage, thank you very much. Indeed, as the narrator of The Drowsy Chaperone once prayed, “I didn’t pay good money to have the fourth wall come crashing down on me.” Amen, brother!

But sometimes… sometimes!… a little crashing ain’t so bad, something to which these two new shows can attest. Potted Potter, a screwy summary of the tomes of JK Rowling, pauses the Cliffs Notes midway through Book 4 to bring up the lights on a fun, participatory game of Quidditch. While there aren’t any flying brooms (this is off Broadway, guys), there are two light-up, circular goals on either side of the theater, as well as some souped-up lighting. Houses right and left (“Gryffindor” and “Slytherin”) compete by battling over a beach ball hurled into the audience. (You know, like at your high school graduation.)

My fellow Potterheads and I never did score, leaving the tally at a disappointing nil-nil, but two audience member erased our dismay by joining the cast onstage for a follow-up episode of snitch-catching. The hyperactive little boy proved incredibly hilarious when he hurled himself fearfully off the stage, while the deceptively demure tween girl prompted the evening’s funniest ad-lib by tackling a performer dressed as a snitch to the ground: “She’s got 99 problems, but a snitch ain’t one,” deadpanned an actor.

Potted Potter got lucky the night I saw it: The audience members were good fun and endearingly odd. But what happens when they’re dull or even dangerous? One Man, Two Guvnors manages that contingency with “plants,” or actors pretending the be ticket holders. One “Christine” gets the craziest of the fun, getting knocked around and whited-out by a fire-extinguisher. (When I saw the show in London, I didn’t think the woman was a plant, so believable was her anxious performance. It was only when I looked at the published script that the truth came out.)

In both shows, the audience shenanigans was the highlight of the evening, enlivening scripted comedy with some spontaneity. Still, I hold to my principles: Please stay away, actors; the threat of getting pulled in front of the footlights is enough to send me slinking into the ground, terrified.

Agree? Disagree? Let’s (gulp) bring down the 4th wall of the blogosphere and (double gulp) interact!

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Potted Potter
at the Little Shubert

directed by Richard Hurst

One Man, Two Guvnors
at the Music Box

directed by Nicholas Hytner

photos by Joan Marcus

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