What we loathe about in­ter­mis­sions. Our crit­ics opine.

Wash­ing­ton Post crit­ics and writ­ers tell why in­ter­mis­sion can be the drea­ri­est 20 min­utes of any per­for­mance

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY nel­son.press­ley@wash­post.com

Be­tween the acts: It’s part of the show. You gawk at the crowd or crouch in a cor­ner; you en­joy wine on the bal­cony or twist an an­kle in the re­stroom stam­pede. You sa­vor the per­for­mance and the breather, or you seethe that the evening’s drag­ging on a point­less ex­tra 20 min­utes or half-hour.

If there is an art to in­ter­mis­sion, what are its el­e­ments of style? When is the long event trans­port­ing, and how does the break (or two) be­come the worst part of the night? The feel­ing varies from dance to mu­sic to the­ater, from night to night and place to place. And if you think Wash­ing­ton’s up­graded cul­tural mec­cas are all now geared for op­ti­mal ex­pe­ri­ences, it ain’t nec­es­sar­ily so.

What fol­lows is a kalei­do­scope of praise, gripes and prayers from Wash­ing­ton Post arts crit­ics and writ­ers who have found them­selves elated, bored or just plain trapped be­tween the acts.

Anne Mid­gette: What is its pur­pose? It’s sup­posed to be a part of the evening out: a chance to stretch your legs, think over what you’ve seen or heard so far, and peo­ple-watch. In­ter­mis­sion is a chance to get a sense of the so­cial scene in a new coun­try, or min­gle with friends in your home town. In­ter­mis­sion is also an oblig­a­tory part of the pro­ceed­ings, and the more oblig­a­tory it feels, the more of a drag it be­comes.

Philip Ken­ni­cott, in an­other part of the lobby: In­ter­mis­sions should be sexy, and Wash­ing­ton is not a sexy town. The 20-minute pauses in the show are now en­tirely func­tional, about ser­vic­ing both ends of the al­i­men­tary canal. There’s no Balzac drama, no courtship, no in­trigue, just a rush to the porce­lain and, if you’re reck­less with money, a cheap glass of barely palat­able wine.

New York Times head­line, Feb. 7, 2017: “Broadway’s Bath­room Prob­lem: Have to Go? Hurry Up, or Hold It”

Nel­son Press­ley, wan­der­ing out­side: There’s no good food; a critic shouldn’t drink (much), so it’s re­ally about the view. I do like the Kennedy Cen­ter: There’s a river. There’s a ru­mor of a river out­side the ti­tanic win­dow wall at Arena Stage, across the ma­rina.

Few views lend a greater feel­ing of so­phis­ti­ca­tion than the second-story vista of Shirling­ton — Lord, I said “Shirling­ton” — from Sig­na­ture The­atre, which fea­tures a pretty good lit­tle bar and pi­ano scene in its com­par­a­tively open space. And on a snowy night, you can’t top the sight of the tow­er­ing Capi­tol dome from just in front of the Fol­ger The­atre, three blocks east.

Fa­vorite in­ter­mis­sions in­side the the­ater? Umm . . . Anony­mous ed­i­tor, flee­ing down the aisle: For me, in­ter­mis­sion’s only value is a quick get­away if the show has been dread­ful. Or sim­ply not worth an­other 90 min­utes of one’s life. P.S. Why are so many pro­duc­tions clock­ing in close to three hours? If they weren’t so long, we wouldn’t need an in­ter­mis­sion. Ge­off Edgers, bump­ing into his ed­i­tor as he gazes to­ward the stage: A per­for­mance should be some­thing you never want to end. And un­less you’re talk­ing the Ring Cy­cle, there is no le­git­i­mate rea­son for any­one to need a break. Sit­ting in the pres­ence of great art should be the break. When we were in Athens re­cently and saw “Madame But­ter­fly” at the open-air the­ater at the Acrop­o­lis, it was such a re­lief to sit in an out­door the­ater where the seats were too steep to waste a trip up and down the stairs for a glass of mer­lot.

Oh, did I men­tion: It started rain­ing just af­ter Pinker­ton’s let­ter ar­rived, and the opera was cut short. Peter Marks, ob­serv­ing a Bastille­like surge to­ward the women’s room: Let’s face it. In­ter­mis­sion is all about the bath­room, and the ter­ri­ble way many per­form­ing arts venues cal­cu­late the num­ber of stalls by gen­der. On more (but still, fairly rare) oc­ca­sions, I find fe­male pa­trons break­ing with cus­tom and in­vad­ing the men’s room line, which al­most al­ways is the shorter one. And I say, more power to them. Uni­sex is the path to true mid­way-through-the-show democ­racy.

Bos­ton Globe head­line, May 29, 2017: “The real drama in Bos­ton’s the­ater district? The in­ter­mis­sion dash to the ladies’ room.”

Mid­gette: I think that Europe has in­ter­mis­sions fig­ured out. There’s a fris­son to wan­der­ing through the or­nate pub­lic spa­ces of the Bavar­ian State Opera in Mu­nich, or the Staat­soper in Vienna, or the modern Phil­har­monie in Ber­lin, check­ing out the var­i­ous ex­hi­bi­tions and eat­ing op­tions and get­ting a sense of who’s there (and what they’re wear­ing). On a re­cent visit to the Mari­in­sky dur­ing my first-ever visit to Rus­sia, I felt right at home in the rep­re­sen­ta­tive rooms, with their shabby-chic grandeur, their ex­hibits de­voted to il­lus­tri­ous past singers, their long lines for cof­fee and open-face sand­wiches. It re­minded me of Cen­tral Europe, and gave me a sense of con­text for the per­for­mance.

But in the States, where a lot of our high-arts choices still feel some­what im­ported, in­ter­mis­sion does not feel quite so con­vivial. Wan­der­ing through the arid, bar­ren lobby of the Kennedy Cen­ter, with its red car­pet and its scro­fu­lous head of Kennedy loom­ing un­com­fort­ably over pa­trons, is not ex­actly re­lax­ing, although the re­cent ad­di­tion of more seat­ing has been a sig­nal im­prove­ment. Edgers, scowl­ing at the sou­venir stand: The

prob­lem, for a par­ent, is that in­ter­mis­sion at a fam­ily mu­si­cal doesn’t just break the magic, it’s de­signed to break the bud­get. You can fight it and tell the kids, who have al­ready spot­ted the over­priced Pum­baa mug, that you aren’t buy­ing to­day. But then you’re left with “do you know how much th­ese tick­ets cost” or “can’t you just ap­pre­ci­ate what you have,” the feel­ings of awe and in­spi­ra­tion sparked by Act 1 scram­bled with the kind of moody con­flict you could have had by sim­ply walk­ing by a Lego store.

Ken­ni­cott: The de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of art, an ad­mirable and nec­es­sary re­form, meant a change in the au­di­ence, and why the au­di­ence is there. For the most part, peo­ple don’t go to the the­ater be­cause they feel com­pelled by so­cial pres­sure to be there. They go be­cause they want to be there. Peo­ple-watch­ing isn’t as pur­pose­ful and strate­gic as it was a cen­tury ago, when the show on­stage was only part of the larger “show” en­acted by the au­di­ence.

There’s noth­ing to re­gret in that. But the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of art also came with a well-in­ten­tioned but un­nec­es­sary com­mit­ment to aes­thetic aus­ter­ity: The­ater spa­ces, es­pe­cially larger arts com­plexes such as the Kennedy Cen­ter, be­came bland, mon­u­men­tal and ugly; the “come as you are” in­vi­ta­tion to the au­di­ence didn’t just al­low in a new in­for­mal­ity of dress, it drove out el­e­gance, idio­syn­crasy and biz­zarrie. And one sad con­se­quence of an ag­ing au­di­ence is how few young peo­ple are min­gling at in­ter­mis­sion. Noth­ing is so de­light­fully or­na­men­tal as the young.

Mid­gette: Which is just the point: In­ter­mis­sion is a so­cial ac­tiv­ity. Yet, at­tend­ing the­ater or con­certs is in­creas­ingly less so­cial. The hour-long in­ter­mis­sions in a Wag­ner opera are de­light­ful if you can work a meal into them, with a dif­fer­ent course be­tween each act, whether you’re go­ing to an Ital­ian restau­rant on the “Green Hill” of the Wag­ner fes­ti­val in Bayreuth or en­joy­ing a pic­nic with ad­mirably or­ga­nized friends in the Kennedy Cen­ter lobby. But if you’re aim­lessly walk­ing around clutch­ing a plas­tic glass of warm chardon­nay, the hour can be­gin to drag.

Anony­mous ed­i­tor: Can we dis­cuss the wine? Why are the brands so bad? And why not of­fer a se­lec­tion? I wouldn’t mind spend­ing $10 for two inches of Ken­dall Jack­son chardon­nay in a plas­tic cup, but I’ve stopped buy­ing the brand they serve at the Kennedy Cen­ter. Arena Stage has choices.

In­ter­loper ca­su­ally pick­ing up a dis­carded pro­gram: “I’m second-act­ing. What’d I miss?”

Press­ley: Best-ever peo­ple-watch­ing night: As a grad stu­dent get­ting a lucky week in Lon­don, I stepped out­side Wyn­d­ham’s The­atre dur­ing the break of Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mt. Mor­gan” and spot­ted the great play­wright him­self, chat­ting about the play (then in pre­views) with the equally tall, lean, pro­fes­so­rial-look­ing di­rec­tor Michael Blake­more. Lurk­ing nearby, pos­si­bly scop­ing out the lead role be­ing played by Brit star Tom Conti, and not as tall as the blonde he was with: Al Pa­cino. In­ter­mis­sions have rarely been so en­ter­tain­ing.

Mid­gette: Food is an­other sub­ject unto it­self. Why can’t the Kennedy Cen­ter of­fer slightly more imag­i­na­tive, or var­ied, in­ter­mis­sion fare? The Bavar­ian State Opera holds a spe­cial place in my heart for its long tra­di­tion of of­fer­ing a choice be­tween Rote Grutze — a red berry com­pote served with vanilla cus­tard — and hot rasp­ber­ries over vanilla ice cream. But while New York’s Lin­coln Cen­ter has rein­vented its culi­nary of­fer­ings, from the spiffed-up restau­rant at the Metropoli­tan Opera to the pub­lic eater­ies at Alice Tully Hall and David Ruben­stein Atrium — the Kennedy Cen­ter still of­fers its lim­ited palate of sand­wiches, cook­ies, and nut mixes.

The Wolf Trap Opera, in the diminu­tive Wolf Trap Barns, has in­ter­mis­sion nailed: con­vivial spa­ces both in­doors and out, a wide range of very good food and a full bar (don’t con­fuse it with the more mass-mar­ket Fi­lene Cen­ter of­fer­ings), and per­mis­sion to take both food and drink into the au­di­to­rium with you when the ac­tion re­sumes.

Ken­ni­cott: Art mu­se­ums, where the peo­ple­watch­ing is al­most al­ways much bet­ter, some­times fill their gal­leries with round so­fas, poofy and soft and slightly redo­lent of high­end broth­els. They are invit­ing, and peo­ple tend to look good sit­ting on them. The­aters might pay bet­ter at­ten­tion to the er­gonomics of the fur­ni­ture on of­fer; seat­ing in the lobby should be not just plen­ti­ful and com­fort­able, it should flat­ter the sit­ter, and put him or her in slightly awk­ward prox­im­ity to other peo­ple.

It is cu­ri­ous that el­e­gance and sex are used to sell al­most ev­ery­thing to­day, yet the per­form­ing arts tend to avoid th­ese things in their mar­ket­ing strate­gies. And yet why do peo­ple go to the the­ater? A great part of the at­trac­tion is erotic, to see and hear sto­ries about love and de­sire, and to watch beau­ti­ful peo­ple en­act them. There are other sto­ries, too, and they shouldn’t be slighted. But strip­ping so­cial dis­play and de­sire out of the ex­pe­ri­ence of the­ater was prob­a­bly a big mis­take. Per­haps some ad­ven­tur­ous com­pany might ex­per­i­ment with the suc­cess of a new so­cial me­dia hash­tag: #Igot­lai­dat­in­ter­mis­sion.

“For me, in­ter­mis­sion’s only value is a quick get­away if the show has been dread­ful. Or sim­ply not worth an­other 90 min­utes of one’s life.” Anony­mous ed­i­tor

KELLY BJÖRK FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

NICK LEHOUX/COUR­TESY OF BING THOM AR­CHI­TECT

The en­trance to the main lobby at Arena Stage.

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