Virtually speaking, the night began in Islamabad and ended in St. Louis. No, I'm not talking about some new video game. The evening's main event, J. T. Rogers' play "Blood and Gifts," had its first preview at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater on Thursday, and kicked off its story with a scene at the Islamabad, Pakistan airport, in 1981. The night concluded with a post-show supper at P.J. Clarke's for cast, creative team, crew, and LCT colleagues, in which another dramatic event transported partygoers to the largest metro area in Missouri.
First the performance, which unfolded in the Newhouse amidst the stunning sets, costumes, and lighting of Michael Yeargan, Catherine Zuber, and Donald Holder. Rogers' drama, which takes place between 1981 and 1991 in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States, has been in rehearsal for the past month at LCT. But no matter how carefully the actors and director do their work, the confidence-building required for a first-rate production needs a paying public.
"It's always such a relief finally to work in front of an audience," said Liv Rooth, the 14-member cast's sole woman, at the supper. "And during the play tonight the Newhouse stage seemed to shift shape dramatically. Sometimes, it felt very intimate. At other times, it felt huge."
Several of the actors told me how impressed they were by how attentively the first-preview audience listened to the storytelling. "You could feel a little hum out there in the dark when an especially good piece of dialogue or an important plot revelation happened," said Michael Aronov, who portrays the Russian Dmitri Gromov. Aronov, who was born in the former Soviet Union but came to the United States when he was 3, told me that in his career he has appeared in at least 100 plays but that, excluding Chekhov, he's never before portrayed a Russian.
(It must be said that I am the one who factored out the author of "The Seagull" from Aronov's list of Russian roles. My rationale: just as Samuel Johnson once commented that "Shakespeare does not write in English; Shakespeare writes in Shakespeare," so one could say that "Chekhov does not write in Russian; Chekhov writes in Chekhov.")
It is not spoiling the plot too much to say that Aronov's character in "Blood and Gifts" enjoys a party. He would probably have had a rollicking good time at PJ Clarke's, and would especially have enjoyed downing a Stoli or two when playwright Rogers made a toast. "I have lived in New York for the past 21 years," he said. "And during that time I feel I have seen almost every show at Lincoln Center Theater." He added: "So I want to say what a privilege it is to have a play of mine done here." He went on to thank LCT artistic director Andre Bishop, LCT Executive Producer Bernard Gersten, and the director of "Blood and Gifts" and LCT's resident director, Bartlett Sher. Rogers concluded: "I don't think I've ever had a better group of actors than all of you assembled here."
Once the toasts were dispatched, the eating and drinking proceeded at a convivial clip. Suddenly, a cry went up at the restaurant's rear - a noise unassignable to the effects of a cocktail or two. A television over the back bar had been playing Game 6 of the World Series all evening, and although people had checked the score each time they grabbed a drink they did not linger there. In the bottom of the ninth, however, the home-team Cardinals, down to their last strike of the Series, made a dramatic comeback: hence the roar. A horde accumulated around the bar and shouted back at the small screen. For some reason, I thought of something Wendy Wasserstein - a presiding spirit at anything LCT-related - once said about sports. Her gist: The huge advantage that the typical sporting event has over the typical play or movie is that in a typical sporting event you are less likely to know the ending halfway through.
On this occasion, as the late-innings lead kept changing hands (St. Louis won, 10-9), Wasserstein's remark proved achingly true. After all the cast yelling abated, Andrés Munar, whose military-clerk character in "Blood and Gifts" has a penchant for witty retorts, remarked, "Call my understudy. I just lost my voice."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.