Life’s a Stage, Even When You’re Sitting in Front of One

As usual, I saw a hell of a lot of plays this past year. But I suspect 2008 is the year I'll remember not so much for what took place on stage (although it's hard to forget a production as flawless as Childsplay's A Tale of Two Cities, or one so mind- and ass-numbing as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde) as what happened around me before, during, and after the show.

Like the night last summer when I was slogging my way through a pile of excreta at Actors Theatre called Speak Spanish to Me. As the lights came up at intermission, the woman on my left, who'd noticed me taking notes throughout Act One, struck up a conversation with me about how horrible the play was. Our lively chat led to an introduction to her husband, a scientist who works with Alzheimer's patients. He made several helpful suggestions about treatments that my mother, who's battling the disease, might consider.

Not every night at the theater was so valuable. There was the evening when, during the final musical number of a show I was very much enjoying, my cell phone's caller ID blinked in with a note that the burglar alarm at my home was going off. As the rather large cast crowded the stage for the curtain call, I was trapped in my seat, unable to race home to foil this burglary attempt. (It turned out to be a false alarm.) Or the night when, just as Actors Theatre artistic director Matthew Weiner finished a polite curtain speech about turning off all cell phones, mine rang. Quite loudly, too.

Speaking of cell phones, I'm still boring friends and family with my rant about a hideous teenage tart who text-messaged her way straight through Act One of a rather mundane production of South Pacific at Desert Stages Theater. After I warned this strumpet at intermission that if I saw her so much as glancing at her cell phone during Act Two, I would shove it straight up her ass, she spent the remainder of the evening fellating a giant candy ring she was wearing. (Note to Desert Stages: Why does your concession stand sell edible jewelry?)

I have sort of a big mouth, and I'm not very bright. One night my friend Nathan and I were leaving the Herberger after watching a very nice production of Eat the Taste, and I was blabbing about how I was looking forward to Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Lady with All the Answers, which was set to open that very weekend. "It's about Ann Landers," I told Nathan as we strode past the door to the Herberger's rehearsal hall, where that very show was rehearsing. "And it stars What's Her Face — she played the wife on The New Dick Van Dyke Show."

"That was Hope Lange," Nathan said, rather apologetically. "Actually, the show is about Dear Abby, and it stars Nancy Dussault, who played the wife on The Ted Knight Show. And she was also walking right behind us when you said all that."

Usually, I run from actors. I fled through a side door the night I saw Cloris Leachman (whom I love) perform her one-woman show (which I hated), because Cloris ended the evening by standing at the theater's exit so that she could hug each and every audience member as they exited. I ran from Judy Rollings recently, too, because a couple of months ago I reviewed a show at a theater Judy co-founded, and I got the name of the theater wrong. First time ever.

I got my comeuppance only last week, after attending iTheatre Collaborative's annual holiday cabaret, during which musical director Jeff Kennedy works his way each December through a couple dozen obscure holiday tunes. As my spouse and I were leaving the theater, we ran into Julia Thomson, one of the performers from the cabaret. Julia is one of about three theater people I know personally — if not very well — and only because her husband, Gerald, worked briefly as a theater critic.

"Julia!" I hollered when I saw her. "How nice to see you. We really enjoyed your performance tonight." Julia looked me square in the eye and said, "Do I know you?"

I guess I've gotten fat or something.

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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