Is it odd that someone as inherently shy as I likes theater where you could touch the actors if you stretched just a bit? Well, I am and I do.
Last evening, we had that experience again, this time in Cambridge. It was our first time at the Central Square Theater. It was much like my countless off-off-Broadway evenings in my decade living in Manhattan. It was also very similar to the old New Rep, when it was the Newton Repertory Theater (hence New Rep) in the Congregational Church in the Highlands there.
I think we found our new New Rep yesterday.
Not only did we like the space and play, but we had the affirming omen of sharing the restaurant with a famous professor holding forth. Theater before theater with splendid food has all the marks — at least the public ones — of a good evening.
Cheek to Jowl
I started enjoying off-off-Broadway productions when I was in high school in New Jersey and would bus into town. Coffee houses, folk music and poets were the entertainment norms, but cheap theater was another part. I got in at the very end of the beatnik phase and the start of the Dylan/Baez/Ochs types. Folk, poetry, jazz or plays were all a few bucks and generally no waiting, reservations or the other rituals of today.
When I moved to the city in the decade there were a few Broadway theaters with bargain seats. I recall the Winter Garden had Sondheim and such where obstructed view seats were under $10. You’d be in a box very close to the stage, but a column would cut off a corner of your sight of the whole stage.
Particularly for musicals, that was of little significance. A friend who loved Follies and such had me accompany her repeatedly to such shows.
My heart though was in the rawer dramas off-off-Broadway. They were invariably in smaller theaters, mostly below Times Square. As with the Central Square Theater, the audience was from two thirds to entirely around the stage. It is like being in the play, without the extroversion. The plays were innovative, unknown to most of the audience and as such riveting and demanding.
If I want to see and hear the same tired tale or song again and again, I could turn on television.
Likewise, we immediately decided to subscribe to the New Rep when we went to our first play there — Moby Dick, An American Opera — in 2001. Not only were we right on the sprawling stage that was the Pequod and much more, but it was not some hackneyed crowd pleaser.
I could certainly go the rest of my life without another production of the 100 or so plays Boston professional, touring, college and community theaters stage. We understand that they put on what they know people will pay to see. Yawn.
Instead, I love being next to the stage and action. I love new plays that require full attention and forming my own judgments.
Fear of Sameness
So last evening, I got it all. While we didn’t go entirely blind and had read a review of Breaking the Code, we did not know the work or playwright. Our reward was a very well written and largely superbly acted blending of biography, history, melodrama, mathematics and fledgling computer science. It was very memorable and far more so than had we seen yet another hoary modern classic play. Yawn again.
Early in life, I could not believe people’s need for the known and fear of the unknown. The mere idea of an eternal heaven of one unchanging, blissful day sounds rather like hell to me. Likewise, I an aghast when I hear folk say they love or look forward to loving to do the same thing every day in their retirement, be that golf or fishing or whatever — hell acted out on earth.
When I lived in Manhattan, a high-school chum decided to become a chef, enrolled in the CIA up in Hyde Park on the Hudson, and took to spending weekends based in my West Village apartment. We were together often, walking the length of the island, eating, drinking, going to theater and such. She became a successful chef.
She told me a story of sameness more than once as she graduated head of her class and worked NYC restaurants. She’d cock her head to the left as she was wont when amused to tell me that I was a better cook but could never be a chef.
She noted that I could go to the pantry or the corner green grocer and create a remarkable meal from what I found. She said that made me better with food and thus a better cook. However, as she learned in school and professionally, the vast majority of restaurant customers want, expect and demand the same…every time.
I did and still do cook by what is best and freshest, combining them generally differently each time. I rarely use recipes. In contrast, she said, customers pay for a predictable experience, one that is a package with generally the same companion(s). Their veggies, entrées, soups, desserts and all damned well look, feel and taste exactly as they remember them.
Likewise, with theater, the crowds like the predictable. They want stories they know, dialog they’ve heard, and a play that their neighbors and coworkers will also recognize.
Only a block from the theater is an apt restaurant for it, Rendezvous. We had been there before and returned, but not because we expected an identical experience. While some of the dishes are pretty steady, many vary by Chef Steve Johnson’s whims, by which of his herbs are in his garden, and by what pates and sausages he and the staff have concocted that week and day.
Shortly after we ordered, someone else who likes Rendezvous arrived to join a table of maybe two dozen. Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates came in, greeting his friends and the wait staff alike. Cheeks were kissed.
I did not get boorish and buttonhole him. After watching his Faces of America PBS series, I suspect he’d appreciate the light link we have. My mother came from the same immediate region as he. They were born in the same hospital in the tiny town of Keyser, West Virginia. He, she and her father all graduated from Pot State (Potomac State in Keyser, now part of the state University system).
As his series shows, it’s possible there is some family connections as well. Who knows, but just talking the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia is not an experience he likely gets often. Nor do I.
Regardless, I behaved myself. On the way out, I did ask the maitre d’ and sure enough, he’s a regular. Perhaps we’ll coincide on a future visit to the theater and we can play two former hillbillies.
Meanwhile, the dinner was wonderful and my wife and I had a fine time there and at the play. We’ll be back to both.
We do vary our restaurants. The several companies that stage in that little complex don’t have so many productions that we’d be on entertainment autopilot.
Following its move from Newton to Watertown, the migrated New Rep stuck us as fairly boring. They run a lot more conventional productions. We dropped our subscription. They have aged badly and are much more timid.
Now in Central Square, there’s what we like.
Tags: harrumph, harrumpher, theater, Central Square, off-off-Broadway, cooking, variety