The history of theater is overwhelmingly the story of writers, actors, and directors. Generally omitted is the group that makes up by far the largest part of the nightly transaction: the audience. For my Oslo blog farewell I’d like to restore the balance. In the past, I have done so by recording the often whimsical remarks of patrons milling about the Vivian Beaumont lobby pre-performance. The subject matter of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo makes such an exercise inappropriate. For the record, however, I would like to state that if I had a dollar for every time someone before the show uttered a variation of “the Swedes are such lovely people” I could book a round trip first-class ticket to Stockholm.
No one knows audience behavior better than the actors, and in the Beaumont, with its thrust stage at an almost alarming nearness to the patrons, the performers are especially attuned to all responses, whether momentous or mundane. Jeff Still, who plays Joel Singer, told me that “in 37 years of doing theater I have never experienced an audience response like the one that happened when Bill & Hillary Clinton were in the house.” Still also mentioned “the time there was a young female audience member sound asleep in the front row and four different cast members told me so right before my entrance.”
Oslo is a drama, yet its myriad entertainments prompted Henny Russell, who plays Marianne Heiberg, Toril Grandal, and a Swedish Hostess, to remember most fondly the moments of audience mirth. “For me, it’s all the different kind of laughs,” Russell said. “There’s the big-boom laugh – an incredible sound of a thousand people laughing simultaneously. There’s the rolling laugh, when different people catch on at different times. But perhaps my favorite is when you do something so subtle that only a few people catch it, so they are the only ones laughing.” On a thrust stage, Russell continued, subtleties will likely only be caught by “people sitting in the section you are facing.”
Which is why, I might point out parenthetically, that when LCT’s marvelous production of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities transferred from the Newhouse thrust to Broadway’s Booth, the laughs, always ample, were even more plentiful. As André Bishop, LCT’s producing artistic director, told me at the time, “Comedies usually do better in a proscenium house, where the entire audience is seeing everything, especially facial expressions, at the same time.”
I must here point out, again parenthetically, that I have not decided whether prosceniums also confer a natural advantage on musicals. Let us hope we never have to find out by means of a song-and-dance version of Rogers’ play. All I’d care to see of that crackpot idea is the marquee blaring the inevitable title: Oslo!
My own indelible Oslo audience moment came during a Saturday matinee, early in the Beaumont run. An elderly woman in front of me had an especially hearty laugh -- an energetic chortle. She was so quick to register the jokes that I wondered if she was perhaps the relation of a cast member or had, at least, seen the play before. At intermission, as the young lady accompanying her sought out the rest room, I chatted the elderly woman up. Her name was Anna and she said she was 94 years old. She grew up in Poland during the war and had lived in Israel for 30 years before emigrating to the United States to live with her daughter and her grandchildren. I asked her how with her personal history she had found so many occasions to laugh during the performance.
“Israelis and Palestinians,” she replied, “have been in conflict for my entire lifetime. And they are still in conflict. You can either cry or laugh. I do both. It helps.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.