The Sound of One Man Clapping
ing, low self-control boor at a play or movie constantly nudging his wife and snark-whispering while the room rocks with laughter (which is why she sits two seats away whenever possible). In a perfect world, I’d be alone in an empty theater, with no one giggling at pratfalls within five nautical miles of me.
Well, I must have been chanting to the right graven images, as I recently found myself the one and lonely audience member in a warehouse/ performance space in downtown Los Angeles—and not because the rest of the city was stuck in traffic or getting their bliss on in a kabala/pilates class. My fellow Angelenos couldn’t have come even if they’d wanted to, for I was the evening’s only invited guest.
Welcome to You, a maximally minimalist exercise in that ever-expanding genre known as immersive theater, where the traditional line between performer and audience is blurred, if it exists at all. What fine breed of masochistic producer goes through the byzantine tumult and fearsome expense of mounting a play for exactly one customer per evening? Max Bialystock comes to mind, but in this case put the blame on a hypercerebral playwright-producer by the name of Edward Tucker, whose Hall & Mirrors production company set the price for a ticket to You at (drumroll, please!) a bankroll-busting $5,000 per—which begs a droll cynic like myself to wonder, “Do fries come with that Shakespeare?”
That’s easily the most expensive theater ticket on record. Mind you, a ticket to Bruce Springsteen’s solo Broadway show recently popped up on Stubhub for a cool $9,000. (If I had a spare nine large, I’d definitely find myself a nice used Porsche to sit in—not a theater seat.) And yes, pommes frites do come with the price of a ticket to You, as well as caviar, Serrano ham or whatever else you care to eat or drink. Not only that, you will be picked up by a chauffeur-driven Suvlimo and whisked to an unmarked building where—upon your grand entrance—seven smartly attired young actors are posed statue-still in what looks like a swank cocktail lounge. At which point, somebody claps hands and the performers come to vivid life, welcoming the night’s privileged guest (ahem!) with velvet handshakes and even softer smiles. If you’ve ever wondered what it felt like to be, say, the pope (or even Springsteen), this is about as close as you may ever get.
Ensconced at the bar, we bantered like long-lost cousins for a good while, sharing names and birthplaces and the like. I sipped on a second old fashioned (the first one had awaited me in the SUV) and started to loosen up a smidgen. I’d had a gnawing apprehension that I was in for what could be an uncomfortably personal evening (word was that the staff had Googled my CV prior to showtime). Was I to play some kind of off-season Ebenezer Scrooge about to face my wicked past, replete with howling ghosts and jangling chains? That’s entertainment? Hey, but you don’t pay the big dollars and expect to be merely diverted. For that kind of dough a bit of catharsis is in order, maybe even a little terror.
Then one of the actors proffered an actual menu of 10 theatrical pieces (or “plates”) and asked me to select as few or as many as I liked, in any sequence. When I chose “Recherche” to kick things off, the players gasped nearly
If you’ve ever wondered what it felt like to be the pope (or even Springsteen), this is as close as you may ever get.
in unison. I’d picked a piece subtitled “The lessons we learn from our parents haunt our dreams,” and it proved to be the most psycho-dramatic entrée of the evening. I was led gingerly from my comfy barstool to a folding chair “onstage” as the lights went from ambient to brightly theatrical. My drinking buddies were now “in character,” and the action—a caustic exchange between an estranged father and daughter—took place around me as if I were invisible, though that illusion was quickly dispelled when a large rectangular mirror was wheeled to within a few feet of where I sat. Gulp.
The plot may not have thickened at that point, but my self-consciousness surely did. Jolted back to a few childhood memories of my own, I listened intently to the sharply etched dialogue and tried to look more comfortable than I felt. “Most kids have an adolescence. You had a research lab of sadism,” the father hissed to his grown daughter, who was busy rattling off a laundry list of adolescent grievances. After 15 minutes of emotionally fraught (and smartly acted) action, we repaired to the bar and resumed our civilian roles as if nothing unusual had transpired. I applauded them (the next-quietest sound to one hand clapping), and conversation deepened a bit, going from favorite taco joints to shards of personal history.
Twenty such sociable minutes passed before I had the presence of mind to request another filet de theatre, which involved a different scenario. In fact, each of the “plates” on the menu was freestanding and discontinuous—call it sketch tragedy
After four platefuls of alternately stimulating and harrowing “halfact” plays, I had begun to fade. Being “you” was harder than it looked, onor offstage. Yet somewhere between the boozy badinage and the close encounters of the Strindbergian kind, a minor miracle had occurred: My prickly inner critic had softened, had even grown fond of these seven earnest players. I was Bottom and they my humble troupe of rustics. A midsummer evening devoted to me had somehow become a matter of we.
But no, that wasn’t a tear that you saw welling in the corner of my eye as we said our goodbyes at evening’s end—it was probably just perspiration. Remember, those confounded stage lights were awfully bright. Let’s just say I was thoroughly immersed by the proceedings and leave it at that.
You will be performed at an undisclosed location indefinitely—or until the producer finds his next paradigm to shatter. Tickets are sold at face value but apparently not for profit’s sake; Tucker says a single performance costs nearly $5,000 to put on. If it was commerce that mattered, I’m sure a smart fellow like him could hash out a better business model.
Arsenic and Old Lace, anyone?
SELF CENTER The actors in You present their audience of one a menu of vignettes from which to choose, so the play changes night by night.