Mind's Ire

Imagine for a moment that you're at a diner, and you've just ordered one of those "man-size" breakfast combos, the kind that come with four eggs and three kinds of meat and griddle cakes and a side of hash browns and a little plate of toast. In the space of only a few seconds, your waitress returns with a plastic dish that's completely empty. She sets this in front of you, then refills your empty coffee cup by pouring a tablespoon of water into it. When you ask her why she's done this, she adjusts the little microphone that's snaking out from under the Dynel wig that appears to be slipping off her head and mutters, "Rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabaga."

Welcome to what I hate most about theater: invisible food, headset microphones, and fake hair. Add to that list the Pretend Driving of Imaginary Cars and you have the performing-arts quadrangle that makes me want to bolt for the lobby any time I witness some part of it.

Note to directors everywhere: We, the audience, can tell that those dinner plates up onstage are empty. We know the difference between a glass of wine and a splash of wine. And when some guy sits in a metal folding chair and calls it a Studebaker, some of us in the audience begin waving invisible fists in the air and hollering an inaudible "Fuck you!" or two.

Sure, we know we're watching a play. But our suspended disbelief goes straight into the crapper when the heroine in an 18th-century musical comedy enters stage left with a microphone hooked over her ear. Trust me. We were just about willing to believe that her beauty mark wasn't drawn on and that the wire trailing from her bustle was a length of fancy piping. But Scotch tape hadn't yet been invented in the 18th century, and if it had, it almost certainly wouldn't be used to fasten an audio cord to the sweaty neck of a corseted lady in waiting.

Theatergoers don't want to be reminded that everything is make-believe, and nothing kills our pretend buzz like some asshole opening an invisible door or turning an invisible steering wheel while he "drives" to the next scene in the play. In a better world, the only people allowed to adjust invisible rearview mirrors would be mimes, and then only in the privacy of their own homes. (This rule would also apply to anyone attempting to steer an invisible rowboat.)

I'm guessing even mimes don't eat invisible food. But people in plays certainly do. Okay, so real food on stage is some kind of a hazard -- a clumsy actor might slip on a glass of spilled wine or an errant Cheez Doodle if they appeared together on the stage. But I once saw a revival of September Tide in which the lead not only cooked but also ate a cheese omelet, a pan of biscuits, and a side of seasoned O'Brien potatoes without dropping a single line of his lengthy monologue. (Bryan Forbes, in his book A Divided Life, writes of an early road company of this same play in which the toupee of the fellow cooking the eggs slipped into the fry pan. The actor continued with the scene, then served a hairy omelet to his leading lady, who obliged him by eating it. Now that's acting.)

When they have not been dropped into a pan of eggs, wigs should not look as if they have. This bit of wisdom apparently has been kept from most of our better wig mistresses, who each weekend in this town serve up the most insincere hairstyles ever to grace the stage. I know I'm not alone when I say that the most persuasive emoting is rendered meaningless when it's delivered from beneath a pile of obviously synthetic curls. Onstage, fake hair should look real unless it's worn by the cast of a play set in English Parliament or a musical comedy about an '80s hair band. Phony-looking hair enrages me more than imaginary food or headset mikes, even. And the thought of any of these things in combination is enough to make me want to drive my invisible car off an imaginary cliff.


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