A drama critic who spends most of his evenings covering Broadway and off-Broadway openings tends to forget that most of the plays being staged in New York on any given night are performed in tiny little theaters consisting of a ratty lobby, a smallish rectangular performance space whose ceiling, walls, and floor are painted black (hence the name “black-box theater”), and an even smaller backstage area (often indistinguishable from the hall). Such places are typically situated on blocks so unfashionable that you look twice at your appointment book to be sure you’ve come to the right place. Then you climb up a flight or three of stairs, settle into a creaky old theater seat, and wait to see what happens next. Often it’s painfully earnest. Sometimes it’s downright awful. Every once in a while, though, the black box turns into a time machine in which you spend an hour or two exploring a parallel universe of the imagination, and when the lights come up again, you remember why you love theater, and why the waitress who served you brunch in between callbacks loves it, too.
The New York International Fringe Festival, which is currently presenting 200-odd plays in 21 off-off-Broadway houses scattered throughout lower Manhattan (it runs through Aug. 24), is dedicated to the proposition that there’s more to theater than Beauty and the Beast. More than a few of the plays are stinkers, and my guess is that most are no better than adequate. But some are remarkable, while even the worst ones can be oddly touching, in part because you can smell the hope oozing out of the pores of the actors on stage (if you want to call it that–many black-box theaters are so small that the word “stage” loses its meaning).
I went down to the East Village the other day to see a Fringe play that I more or less picked out of a hat. I didn’t know anything about the playwrights or the company, but something about the press release tickled my fancy, and I wanted to see at least one show not on account of The Buzz but simply because it sounded interesting. So I requested a pair of press seats, and when the appointed hour arrived, I boarded the subway and made my way to the theater. I had to change trains twice–not a good sign.
Once I got there, the sidewalk was crowded with chattering playgoers, some coming, others going. The theater itself, somewhat to my surprise, was air-conditioned, but in every other way it conformed to my darkest expectations. The program was a single photocopied sheet, the set a half-dozen folding chairs, and it didn’t take much eavesdropping before I figured out that the house was packed with friends and family of the cast members (including small children), all of whom laughed and clapped at every possible opportunity (especially the small children).
Sounds awful, no? Fooled you. Fooled me. I loved the show, and not just because the homely surroundings made me feel sympathetic, either. Just the opposite: I sat in my lumpy seat for five minutes waiting for the lights to go down, muttering to myself, Oh, man, this is going to be crappy. But no more than a minute after the play started, I started saying, Oh, wow, this is really good!
Do I come to a performance with expectations? Of course. How could I not? I’ve been a critic for a quarter-century, and in that time I’ve learned not to bet too heavily against the odds. More often than not, you can judge a book by its cover. But I’ve also learned to leave myself open to the possibility that the odds might be wrong this time around, and when I hear that telltale click in your head and realize that something I expected to be bad is actually good…well, it’s just about the best feeling I know.
I went to two other plays that day, one of which was lousy and the other fine. I got rained on all night, spent a couple of hours sweating in a sauna-hot theater, and came home soaked to the skin. It didn’t matter. I knew that come week’s end, I was going to write a review that would make a gaggle of struggling young actors very, very happy. Rave reviews don’t necessarily make much difference in the hard life of a performer. (I once wrote a glowing profile for the Sunday New York Times of a singer who was all set to open in a theater-district cabaret…on September 12, 2001. Needless to say, she didn’t get much bounce from that piece.) Still, they don’t hurt, especially when they come from out of the blue. Which is one of the reasons–and one of the best ones–why I do what I do.