Monday, June 13, 2011

Solo in Times Square

The Theatre for One "playhouse."

I waited for more than two hours to see Theatre for One yesterday, but it was worth it to have Dallas Roberts hold my hands and tell me a story. He is one fearless actor, and his powers of concentration are immense. The portable booth where one actor and one audience member gather for a five- to ten-minute performance was in the middle of Times Square, just down the block from the TKTS booth, and since yesterday was Tony Awards Sunday, New York 1's live red-carpet pre-show was spilling forth from the Jumbotron for two hours' worth of the one-on-one performances.

Since the booth, which is the brainchild of Tony-winning scenic designer Christine Jones (who's also Roberts' wife), isn't soundproof, it wasn't the most ideal circumstance from which to watch him enact Zayd Dohrn's wrenching eulogy to a lost younger brother, "Legerdemain," but enjoying any sort of unique theatrical experience in New York requires patience and tolerance -- and it was free. (Plus, taking part in this intimate actor-audience exchange didn't prevent me from learning in real time that Kathleen Marshall won the Tony for best choreography.)

Black on the outside, and lined with red fabric inside, the booth is intentionally reminiscent of old-time peep shows, and my experience was akin to a theatrical lap dance -- with emotional nakedness instead of physical nudity. A chair was placed in front of the booth's built-in seat, and I understood why when the board separating actor and audience was pulled away and Roberts and I were facing each other with our knees almost touching. He asked if he could hold my hands while he told me a story about the band he and a friend formed in high school and how his younger brother, who was a gifted classical musician, wanted so much to be a part of it, even though the storyteller and his friend didn't have much talent.

Oh, and I should mention that as he tells this story he's trying, unsuccessfully, to choke back tears and hold himself together. I'm surprised I didn't feel more discombobulated by the whole experience (when friends cry in my presence I never know what to say or do), but Roberts is an actor who's hard to look away from -- especially when his hands are holding yours and resting on your knees. David Cote mentions in his Time Out New York review having trouble making eye contact with Lauren Ambrose at Theatre for One, but I looked away only a couple of times. And I didn't know if I was supposed to reply when the dialogue included questions (I mumbled the odd word) or applaud at the end (it didn't seem appropriate to).

The impact, the thrill even, that I felt when I stepped out of the booth and the nice young man shepherding people in and out handed me a "playbill" card with the name of the actor and the author sticks with you. As Charles Isherwood notes at the end of his New York Times review, that kind of close connection, whether physical or mental, can be a rare, unnerving and ultimately very rewarding experience.