When an audience sees a beautiful set for the first time, it sometimes applauds. For a theatrical company moving from rehearsal room to an actual stage, as In The Next Room did this week, the reaction is a little different. It's still pleasurable, but after the initial oohs and aahs abate there's the realization that the set is going to be their workspace for the next several weeks. Practical matters intrude.
Before the actors appeared on the stage at the Lyceum on Thursday afternoon this week, for that first tech rehearsal, Annie Smart, the show's set designer, stood in the right-side aisle of the theater, and surveyed the crew scurrying about the furnishings in front of her. I peppered her with a few questions about her impressive handiwork, and she responded gracefully.
What were the set changes from the play's production earlier this year at the Berkeley Rep? "The proscenium there is wider," Smart said. "It was more of a letter-box shape. The Lyceum's proscenium is three or four feet higher, so we've had to adjust." As Smart provided further detail about the dimensions, a lamp onstage went out rather violently: electricity, such a theme in the play, was apparently asserting itself.
I asked about the spaciousness of the set's two main rooms - from an upstate New York house in the 1880s. "Unlike electricity," Smart said, "central heating had not yet arrived. So keeping the place warm would have to be a consideration in any construction then." All the same, I pointed out, the rooms are quite spacious. "This family has a bob or two," Smart replied. "Their furnishings reflect that fact. Mrs. Givings" - the mistress of the house - "can only pick out a few notes on the piano, yet they have a nice piano anyway. And on the piano, there's a lovely globe lamp with an Egyptian base. That's different from the one in Berkeley."
Also altered is the large curtain that hangs over the house's front door to help keep the cold at bay. "For Berkeley," Smart said, "it was made of green chenille. Now's it's a rich red."
I mentioned that the stage décor seemed to travel out into the house, because the timeframe of the story (the 1880s) wasn't much removed from the year of the Lyceum's construction (1903). The set and the theater's permanent fixtures audience seemed to match.
"Yes, there's a kind of overlap," Smart replied. "When this theater was built, it wasn't '1903-modern' in style, but more 'classic-late-Victorian."
As Smart concluded her audio annotations of the set, the play's actresses, splendidly outfitted by the costume designer, David Zinn, began to wander onstage. Their dresses' derrieres were copiously ruffled, and as I watched them glide in, inserting themselves amongst the busy stagehands, I couldn't help but think: bustles amongst the bustle.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.