Williamson first reported the incident — where an audience member sitting next to him at the theatre refused to put away her cell phone during the Off-Broadway immersive theatrical experience Natasha, Pierre, causing him to respond impulsively and be thrown out of the theatre — in his piece "Theater Night: Vigilantes 1, Vulgarians 0" published on National Review Online.
"[I was] surrounded by awful, disruptive people who didn't seem to know that they were at a show as opposed to at a nightclub or rock concert," Williamson told Playbill.com. "[The theatregoers had] been talking throughout — and talking quite loudly amongst themselves — about something that was apparently unrelated. I was thinking that if you have that short of an attention span, maybe a two-and-a-half opera based on 'War and Peace' is not really the place for you. Anyway, we spoke to the house manager during the intermission about the situation, and they said that they would speak to them [and] do something about it. From what I understand, they did, but it didn't seem to [help the situation]. The lady was continuing to use her cell phone there next to me."
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is housed at Kazino, a new intimate venue created specifically for the show that places the audience closely together.
"It's bench seating there in the back, so she was basically in my lap," said Williamson. "I asked her politely if she'd put [her cell phone] away because it was distracting, and her response was, 'So don't look.'" After a back-and-forth argument, Williamson grabbed the patron's cell phone and tossed it across the room — aiming for the exit. The angered theatregoer slapped Williamson and "stormed out," crossing directly in front of the action in Natasha, Pierre.
"Maybe ten minutes later," Williamson continued, "the security guy came and got me, and that was that."
Williamson's response to poor theatre etiquette quickly spread across social media platforms and sparked conversation amongst frequent theatregoers. Although some praised Williamson for standing his ground — and acting out against constant distractions exhibited at the theatre — others contested that his actions only made matters worse.
"At that point, there was already a fair disruption underway," he said. "She'd gotten quite loud when I was trying to talk her into behaving herself. Yeah, unquestionably what I did was a disruption, [but] I think I can make the case that I did it in the greater good, [although] it wasn't quiet."
What should be done in these situations where phones are taken out to text or cameras are used to photograph performers (as in the time Tony winner Patti LuPone stopped the show in 2009 when a theatregoer tried to capture her performance in Gypsy)? "You've got ushers there for a reason, particularly in the big Broadway houses," added Williamson. "You know they're monitoring because [if] you take out a camera and start videotaping, you'll be visited very quickly, so when their economic interests are on the line, [the ushers are] pretty reactive and pretty robust, but when [it is in] the interest of people who are paying $200-250 a ticket, they are taking a laisser-faire approach. I think the houses should be more aggressive about that. I think that if once a month or twice a month, [the house staff] would eject someone over this, the word would get out pretty quickly — you would establish a sort of social norm there. But when you tolerate it, people will do it."
Representatives for the production did not respond when Playbill.com reached out for comment. Williamson said there is "talk of criminal charges" in his original National Review article; currently no legal action is being pursued.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, the recent recipient of the 2013 Richard Rodgers Awards for Musical Theater, began previews May 1 for a run through Sept. 1.
The play, according to producers, "invites you to join Tolstoy's brash young lovers for an evening you'll never forget, as vodka flows and passions ignite in Dave Malloy's electropop opera, ripped from a slice of 'War and Peace.'"