By Barbara & Scott Siegel
Theater for People Who Don’t Go to the Theater
It started in 1988 with Tony & Tina’s Wedding: a little bit of script, a little bit of acting, and a little bit of pasta – and voila – welcome to theater for people who don’t go to the theater. What began as a clever bit of novelty theatrics that took off commercially and lasted twenty-two years, has spawned a significant industry that is often seen today by many as cutting-edge theater. We’re not talking about knock-off’s of the original like Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah, and Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral, which no one took seriously. The real sea change in the theater is with the explosion – and critical acceptance (not to mention popularity) – of shows like Sleep No More, Play/Date, and Queen of the Night.
Of course, there have been plenty of other interactive, site-specific, food-related, playful shows in the past that appealed to those folks that don’t ordinarily buy theater tickets. And we’re not being snobs about this; drawing people into one kind of theatrical experience might, indeed, embolden them to see another show in a theater that actually has seats and a stage. It might even be fair to say that like producers hoping to draw playgoers from outside the traditional audience pool, this brave new theater is no different than staging a Broadway show with movie or TV stars rather than far more accomplished but less famous theater stars. In the end, that old adage from Gypsy continues to hold true: “You gotta have a gimmick.”
When the gimmick, however, begins to be taken seriously as something artful, that’s when we need to examine our critical values, if not our taste. It’s one thing if James Franco is starring on Broadway in Of Mice and Men in order to sell tickets to the show – it’s still Of Mice and Men. But is Sleep No More actually Macbeth? The long-running, critically acclaimed Sleep No More has made its mark, we think, not so much on its watered down rendition of The Scottish Play, but rather on its incredible, jaw-dropping design elements. This is one show when one does, indeed, leave the “theater” metaphorically humming the set design. Or at least you leave talking about it. There’s a better than even chance that most people don’t even know they saw Macbeth (or some part of it) amidst all the hoopla.
As for Play/Date, now this is a truly clever idea, at least on paper (or on computer), because it smartly hopes to engage theatergoers both before and after the show via your engagement with the characters and plot lines on Facebook. Taking place in a downtown bar on three levels, with seventeen different short plays unfolding in three “acts”, the execution simply doesn’t work; the sound is a problem, among other flaws. What it has going for it, though, is a concept that is nothing if not trendy. Or trending? But theater via social media, while perhaps cool in some circles, starts to ultimately become something less than live entertainment and more like typing.
Finally, what are we to make of a show like Queen of the Night which is, ultimately, nothing more than a vastly more lavish version of Tony & Tina’s Wedding? Granted, the choreography is exciting and the costumes are eye-catching. But if you think you’re witnessing more than a classic comic book version of The Magic Flute, you’re deluding yourself. There is barely more story here then in a Cirque du Soleil show. The irony is that the knock on Tony & Tina was always that the food was terrible, whereas in Queen of the Night, the food is the best part of the show. Dinner theater has truly and finally come to New York City.