A Guide to Cultural Crudity

As yet another theater season gets under way, publicists are doing their annual best to tempt us with their ticketed entertainments. But no one is heralding the amusing performances presented by those in attendance; while the cast and crew of every production are acknowledged in the program, those of us basking in their thespian glow are always overlooked. And if what's happening onstage doesn't capture the imagination, the more boorish among us are often a welcome distraction from what's on the playbill. Here, in celebration of a necessary evil, is a primer to the glorious horrors of the annoying theatergoer.


PROFILE: An almost-middle-aged man who thinks "dressing up" means donning a vest purchased from the men's clothing aisle at Sam's Club. Or a fortyish fellow who considers owning a suit "unnecessary" but does own a Scooby-Doo necktie.

COSTUME: A pair of torn tennis shorts purchased at a flea market; a mostly clean tee shirt featuring a silk-screened advertisement for malt liquor; and those comfy plastic sandals he got on sale at Osco, sans socks.

DIALOGUE: In response to anyone who questions his evening wear: "Hey, it's Phoenix!"


PROFILE: A plumber from Seligman who last visited the theater when his daughter portrayed a shrub in her fourth-grade Christmas pageant.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Searching everywhere for a concession stand that sells something other than frappuccino and Frisbee-size cookies; making his way to his seat 12 minutes after curtain goes up, facing the stage as he goes, so that his buttocks graze the noses of those already seated; applauding at the end of every scene.

DIALOGUE: If it's a musical: "They're not going to sing again, are they?" At intermission: "Is it over?"


PROFILE: A VP of sales and marketing for an industrial concern who attends theater only when it's a road company of something execrable (like Grease) starring a has-been television sitcom star (like Eddie Mekka), or when forced to go by his wife.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Reading the sports pages, which he's brought along "in case the show gets boring"; listening to the playoffs with a discreet transistor earphone; trying to sneak out at intermission.

DIALOGUE: "What kind of entertainment do they have at halftime?"


PROFILE: A well-dressed society matron who secretly hopes to be picked for the inevitable audience participation number.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Opening cellophane-wrapped Coffee Nips candy as slowly as humanly possible, just as the heroine onstage is about to say something meaningful; shooting daggers at anyone who looks her way.

DIALOGUE: "I'm hypoglycemic!"

AD-LIB: "Buy your own damn treats."


PROFILE: A stay-at-home mom of indeterminate age who has forgotten that no one under 15 should be allowed into a theater unless the program involves puppets and a morals lesson.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Ignoring the patron who objects to her noisy tot kicking the back of the patron's seat; refusing to leave at intermission despite the fact that her offspring is projectile vomiting all over the lobby.

DIALOGUE: "I thought live theater would be edifying for Little Janie."


PROFILE: A great, strapping former linebacker who thought he was going to the movies when his girlfriend mentioned "the theater."

BITS OF BUSINESS: Offering thunderous comments to his companion about the actors, particularly if he's unimpressed with their performances.

DIALOGUE: "I think the lead guy is a fairy!"


PROFILE: A soccer mom with four kids, a full-time job, and a secret crush on Richard Kiley.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Nodding off during any scene in which "people are just standing around talking"; snoring loudly; drooling.

DIALOGUE: "Phantom was a whole lot better."


PROFILE: Liberal arts major with a superiority complex.

COSTUME: A hat with a veil, even if he's a man.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Clucking over botched sound cues; scribbling notes about the costumer's use of tulle and the lighting designer's choice of gels; whining that the work is "derivative" and "insufficiently ironic"; offering, at intermission, an unsolicited critique of the first act that begins, "When I saw it on opening night in New York . . ."; claiming to have enjoyed Cats.

DIALOGUE: "I thought the second act lacked proper focus." "I liked the touring production much better." As intermission ends: "I should have listened to my mother and become a pet groomer."


PROFILE: An interior designer who owns every Broadway cast recording released in this country since the invention of the phonograph. Or a well-groomed personal shopper with a good tailor and a vast collection of mint-in-box teenage fashion dolls.

COSTUME: A hat with a veil, especially if he's a man.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Refusing to sit anywhere above the fifth row, since "real actors should be able to project that far"; a whispered description of the playwright's last seven shows, employing phrases like "florid" and "postmodern" to describe them; postshow commentary on the blocking, the director (but never the actors, unless it's to criticize a player's "interpretation"), and the lack of "stage presence" among the cast; claiming to have understood Cats.

DIALOGUE: If it's an adaptation: "Translations never truly capture the essence of what the original author intended, do they?"


PROFILE: A gynecologist who never works weekends but always carries a cell phone.

BITS OF BUSINESS: Smiling sheepishly and shrugging when his phone rings halfway through the leading man's big monologue; recounting, sotto voce, the entire plot of the show to the person on the other end of the line; sneering when fellow audience members hiss at him (after all, he's a patron of the arts, while they're merely season ticket holders).

DIALOGUE: "I'm on call!"


PROFILE: A dinner-theater actor with a day job and comp tickets to the show. Or the parent of someone in the cast. Or a theater critic with no morals and a secret desire to be loved by "theater people."

BITS OF BUSINESS: Dropping names; fawning; asking for autographs; cornering the second male lead and exclaiming, "Tonight, a star was born!"; making a pass at the wigmaster; refusing to speak to fans of the leading lady or anyone who isn't Equity.

DIALOGUE: "It was all right for a workshop production."


PROFILE: Almost any living person in North America.

DIALOGUE: To a theater critic he's cornered in the lobby after the show, loudly and within earshot of several cast members: "So! What did you think of the play?!"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela