It always seemed to me a very practical thing the way Rossini and to some extent Donizetti and Bellini built little applause platforms into the end of their arias, musical nothings, the equivalent to "And that's what I did with my summer vacation" that might as well be clapped over, because they're going to be. The gong rang, the e-flat's over, here's something to drown out with your applause.
Broadway audiences like to applaud. I sometimes think it's their favorite part of a play. And I think (though I'm going to have trouble explaining it) there's a special kind of applause that happens a lot at Broadway shows, in the middle of a show. You hear it start sometimes and not catch. It comes after a particularly well-placed one-liner, and I'm not sure if it owes its existence to sitcoms or, primally, to the bel canto opera--in fact it reminds me of the spontaneous applause after a piquant high note as much as it does the "you go girl" ovation after, I dunno, Courtney Thorne-Smith puts down Jim Belushi for leaving the toilet seat up on whatever that nightmarish cesspool of mediocrity they're on is called.
This kind of applause is more and more common. Maybe I'm just telling stories to make a point, but I'd swear I even heard it in The Year of My Entire Goddamn Family Dying with Ms. Redgrave. No that's probably just a lie. But you can hear people itching to do it, the nascent "oh no she didn't" applause rippling almost to a start in the mezzanine like the flashing lights before a migraine. Not to be a horrid curmudgeon. It has its place.
The 39 Steps, at the small and comfortable Cort Theater, is built around an audience's need to applaud. In the first act there was a blackout or the mugging end of a funny exchange about every three minutes, cue mid-act applause. With this wind-up it sounds like I mean that as a bad thing. As a matter of fact, given such indulgent permission, it's not an odious or even irritating thing. Only a few lines are truly funny, if you ask me, but it's a good time, a trifle.
Ok. I'm trying to be a good sport. The fact is I didn't love it. There's a lot of swell physical comedy, and some virtuosic timing, and even a whimsical little joke in the program bios. The thing is I found the comedy, under the perfectly enjoyable performances, just a little stale. By the end I had the distinct sensation of having watched the best episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" ever. Yeah, the American version. Like...not to spoil anything, the attempt to slip in the names of as many Hitchcock films as possible, and the audience roared at each, and said to each other "Vertigo! Did you hear?!" I think it may actually be a meme we can blame on stuff like Dreamworks animation, wherein references to things outside the frame are automatically funny.
And seriously, the reactions of the audience were those of pure pleasure, and what kind of sniffly Puritan would I be to piss on that, so, let's just say The 39 Steps is a real crowd pleaser, only I'm not much of a crowd.
The revival of Les Liaisons Dangermouse gracing I forget what theater* is something I'm actually a little more comfortable dismissing though for my own reasons, namely that I would donate a kidney to Sian Phillips if she needed or in fact merely fancied one, I was happy to see it. Laura Linney, it goes without saying, is among our finest, able and often required to redeem the worst kind of crap. (See also: her scenes in Love, Actually if you need proof, or watch the moribund bustle opera of House of Mirth, wherein her entrances are the only signs of life.) In good company, she's a revelation, as in You Can Count on Me, perfectly capable of wallops of joy and pathos in brief utterances. But not here, for some reason. The fact is, the Marquise de Merteuil is not a deeply interesting character, illuminated only by a faint glimmer of grand-guignol camp such as Annette Benning provided in the better filmic adaptation, Valmont. It seems to me Linney was searching for some kind of pathos, perhaps inspired by Glenn Close's risibly serious turn in the lesser filming of the book/play/movie/opera we are so well familiar with now.** There was little there to find. It's how teenagers think adults might behave badly, and it's still around and adapted so much, I think, because it's nostalgic to revisit that. My companions noted the awkward physicality of the direction. And for god's sake, if you're going to have cast in minor parts sing Handel arias, ask them to do it rather more idiomatically and without all the pomo ambient reverb, or at least get an Italian diction coach. Ombra my foo, indeed. Ombra your own.
Yeah, I have this and that I'd been meaning to post about including a link to some music I'm thinking you'll like a lot. Maybe that'll happen next week.
*I thought of it, and maybe was blocking it out because I wish theaters still had classy names, all of them, instead of being named after corporations. I hope people in Chicago are still calling Comiskey Park Comiskey Park because no matter my indifference about baseball, there can never be any poetry in something called Cellular One Field.
**I'm speaking of English language films, btw. I haven't seen the French. Actually it appears there's a miniseries of some sort with Catherine Deneuve, too.