Every time this first week in February rolls around, I think about something that happened to me once upon a time. I won't tell you how long ago it happened, or in which of the 169 cities, 39 states, or 11 countries I've seen theater it took place. I don't want to embarrass anyone. But here's the story.
"Would you please come review our show?" asked the nice young man over the phone. "We're just starting out, and could use a break."
It's the type of plea I usually respond to, so I said I'd be there for the Wednesday matinee. And when that Wednesday rolled around, I got another call.
"Just reminding you that today's our show." "I'll be there!"
"Will you need one or two tickets?"
"Do you like to sit close or far away?"
"No-no-no. I've found that my taking notes disturbs the actors. Second row'll be fine."
I arrived at 1:50 for the 2 PM matinee. No one was around. Hmmm, was it a 3 PM mat?
No. A smiling young woman was there, ready to give me my ticket, and a young man was ready to usher me in.
Into a totally empty theater.
Nevertheless, one seat in the second row had masking tape stretched across its arms, lest someone else take it. "You're right here, sir," he said, stripping off the tape with a flourish.
I took off my coat, and took the liberty of giving it its own seat. I checked my watch. 1:52 now. Would it happen? Would it actually happen? Would I be the one and only person seeing the show this afternoon?
No. Couldn't be. This was a work that, in its original Broadway production, had received a Tony nomination as Best Play. It was written by an internationally known playwright. It had to have more of an audience than this. The matinee had to start at 2:30 PM.
I left my seat (and my coat. I didn't have to worry about anyone taking it). "Um, what time is the matinee?" I asked the young woman.
"Two, sir," she said, beaming. And when she saw I was speechless, she added, "Light house today."
Yes, you could say that. I returned to my seat. Would the actors actually come out and do it for me and me alone? No, I'm sure the young woman and man would come in to watch, too.
But when the house lights dimmed, I was still the entire audience. And the actors were actually going to do it! I'm sure that if I weren't reviewing, they wouldn't have. But needless to say, they needed the publicity.
I had to stay, then. Walking out would be too cruel. (I do walk out when I don't like a show. Once after 11 minutes, for -- no, I won't embarrass that production either.)
I started thinking about Jumbo. When the Rodgers-Hart musical was in rehearsal, producer Billy Rose advertised in the papers for "a modern Diamond Jim Brady" who'd get his own "advance showing IN SOLITUDE (caps his). $10,000 for ONE SEAT--and the Hippodrome and Jumbo is yours alone FOR A NIGHT."
Hmmm, was I the first solo audience performer? And for less than a fraction of the price. What a legacy!
But what a responsibility, too. What's the theatrical etiquette for a solo audience member? When Act One ends, should you applaud? Wouldn't it sound like that solitary handclapping you used to hear at the end of Laugh-In, which was always meant sarcastically? And when Act Two and the play ends, should I give a standing ovation? Or would that seem equally condescending?
Then I stopped worrying, because something else caught my attention. The cast. Good Lord, were they giving it their all! You'd never know from their sweat-wrenching performances that they were performing for next-to-no audience.
Now I really felt bad. I started thinking about those performances I attend around the country where there are 20 or fewer people in the house, and how disappointed the company must be. Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse . . . and who's out there appreciating? This was the final indignity.
I applauded loudly at the end of both acts, as if I'd been in the middle of a hot house. And, of course, I stood. They'd earned it. Just as I'd stand and applaud for all the other performers who'd played to almost as small houses.
Not only that, I went back to the office and wrote a review that said the audience loved it and gave it a standing o. Which wasn't a lie.
Ironically enough, on the very night of the anniversary of this memorable performance, I happened to make my first visit to the (very talented) Off Broadway Actors Company Theatre, which was doing The Cocktail Party and -- thank the Lord -- had a healthy crowd there to witness it. But before it began, director Scott Alan Evans took the stage.
"We're selling raffle tickets in the lobby," he informed. "And the prize is -- the company will come to your house and perform a show just for you!"
That's okay, Scott. I've already played that room.
-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger. You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com