Critic’s Notebook: The Night Before Broadway Went Dark

Peter Debruge

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Let me preface this by saying the story I’m about to tell is not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

Two weeks ago, I rushed to New York City to catch “The Inheritance” before it closed on Broadway. I’d been tracking the play by Matthew Lopez — a multigenerational, six-and-a-half-hour monument that resurrects E.M. Forster to give voice to the gay experience more than a century after “Howards End” — since it opened in London, where the reviews had been rapturous. A few straight friends saw it there and went out of their way to tell me how it had made them cry, and I’d heard that London gays were going back to see it multiple times.

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By all reports, this sounded like the most important queer play since “Angels in America” (the comparison was all but unavoidable, given the two-part format and quarter-century-later survey of AIDS’ impact), but the scope also made it feel like a “now or never” opportunity. Once “The Inheritance” left Broadway, what theater in America would have the courage or resources to perform it again?

Clearly, the clock was ticking, and not only because the producers had announced the show would be closing on March 15. Overseas, something unprecedented was happening: European governments were quarantining cities and ordering people to shelter in place on account of the coronavirus, and I felt fairly certain that it was only a matter of time before someone pulled the plug on Broadway. My peers thought I was crazy — not for making the trip to the most densely populated city in the U.S. days before President Trump declared a national emergency. No, they thought I was crazy for thinking that Broadway could possibly go dark. I should come, my New York friends insisted, and a couple offered me their couches to crash on. What could be more appropriate than seeing a play about one pandemic on the brink of another pandemic?

Turns out, I got to New York just in time. Broadway went dark indefinitely the day after I saw “The Inheritance.”

My trip was like a surgical strike, in and out of Newark airport in 48 hours, long enough to catch both parts of “The Inheritance,” and also to squeeze in one other show for good measure. That’s how I managed to see a preview performance of “Hangmen,” a wonderfully macabre feat of wit and wordplay from my favorite voice in contemporary theater, Martin McDonagh. (He’s the Irish chap who wrote the astonishingly bloody “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” for the stage and a sinister little dark comedy called “In Bruges” for the screen.)

Hangmen” is what we might call a casualty of the coronavirus: The show closed even before it could open. I want to tell you more about it, since you won’t be reading any reviews of the play going forward.

Setting the Stage

Landing in New Jersey, I marveled that the airline’s idea of disinfecting between flights amounted to sending a single janitor on board with a spray bottle and a shammy towel to wipe down the seats.

Nobody seemed to be taking this coronavirus thing very seriously. My plane had been packed, and the PATH train into town was crowded as ever, with no more of the passengers sporting surgical masks than you might see on an average Tuesday in New York. The phrase “social distancing” wasn’t yet in common use, but it doesn’t really apply to public transportation anyway. Every strap and pole is a perfect conductor for infection.

If you’ve lived in New York, you know how to surf in place on the subway, shifting your balance so you don’t have to touch any of the gross surfaces around you. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has since emerged as a local hero, but at the time, his only real advice to commuters was to “take the next train” if the one in front of you was super-crowded.

Trust me, no one was taking the next train. The New Yorkers around me looked downright blasé about the situation. Meanwhile, the vending machines folks use to buy and refill their Metro cards had never seemed more disgusting. I would sooner lick the windshield of my car back in L.A. than touch the screen of one of these things. I warily ordered my card with my knuckle and vowed to wash my hands first chance I could.

Ahead of my trip, I had made a breakfast appointment with Tribeca director Cara Cusumano and the festival’s new head of communications, Daria Vogel, during which I asked them if they thought there was a chance that Tribeca might be canceled. “We’re talking about it everyday,” Cara told me.

They had seen what happened to SXSW, but felt the situation was different in New York. SXSW is the biggest thing to happen to Austin every year, and locals had been protesting the influx of people from all over the world and whatever infections they might bring. New Yorkers aren’t fazed by that kind of traffic. “We’re city rats,” joked one of the Tribeca team. “We’ve built up such a strong immunity from riding the subways all the time.”

We wrapped the meeting by making plans for me to return in a few weeks for the festival, where I’d agreed to host an anniversary screening of “Sea of Love” with Al Pacino. I can attest: As of Wednesday, March 11, Tribeca was still fully on track to hold the event as intended. The next day, they announced plans to postpone it.

That’s how quickly this situation seemed to be shifting under our feet. I flew in early Tuesday morning and saw “Hangmen” that night. The next morning, there were reports that a Broadway theater usher had tested positive for Covid-19. Now we know that tests were lagging far behind the actual statistics, but that didn’t seem to dissuade theatergoers from swarming their favorite shows.

“Hangmen” was probably three-quarters full — not unusual for a play, which tend not to sell as well as musicals on Broadway. (I overheard someone behind me say that Scott Rudin had lowered the price on all his plays to $50 to keep audiences coming, so clearly attendance was starting to dip.) I bought the cheapest ticket I could find, and was invited to move down to a better seat in the front of the mezzanine moments before the lights went down.

A Morbid Way to Start

I love me some Martin McDonagh. He goes and hangs a character right there in the opening scene. The guy could be innocent for all we know (he insists as much, turning his execution day into a kind of slapstick routine). Doesn’t matter to Harry (Mark Addy), the portly fella whose job it is to set the noose and pull the lever. And so he does, dropping the condemned man through the floor.

It’s a startling way to begin a play, but director Matthew Dunster finds an elaborate way to underscore the absurdity of this opening execution. Instead of simply dimming the lights and changing the scene, he rigs the entire jailhouse set on an elaborate pneumatic lift and lets the audience watch as it floats away up to the rafters. It’s like someone went and pushed the snooze button on the entire practice of capital punishment.

Nearly the rest of the show takes place in Harry’s pub in Oldham, England. Hanging has since been abolished, and Harry’s doing all right for himself. The bar brings a regular assortment of drunks, whom this jovial buffoon regales daily with stories of his days as the country’s “second-best hangman.” Harry’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder about the other guy, a man named Pierrepoint, who oversaw a lot more hangings than he did, and McDonagh keeps mentioning this unseen rival regularly enough that it’s unspeakably satisfying when “bloody Pierrepoint” finally materializes well into the second act.

In the meantime, there’s a sneaky young reporter (Owen Campbell) hanging about hoping to get a scoop and another well-dressed stranger named Mooney (Dan Stevens, the starriest addition to the cast since its earlier Off Broadway incarnation by the Atlantic Theater Company), who tries to make himself conspicuous at one of the barroom tables. “Menacing,” is the word Mooney’s going for, actually, and it’s a bit of a stretch for Stevens — like watching Cary Elwes try to look properly pirate-like in “The Princess Bride” — but it works. He’s a man aspiring to menace, which is just what this not-quite-creepy character calls for.

In any case, Stevens makes a wonderful foil for Addy’s Harry. McDonagh is a master of language, who so often works with rural Irish accents and eccentricities. Here, he shifts his target to an equally colorful batch of Northern English rubes, using the vastly different way these two characters choose to express themselves to create a kind of subtextual conflict between them: Slick and out of place in such a bar, Mooney is baiting a trap of his own devising. He talks circles around these working-class small-towners, such that his condescension reads like the sign of a sociopath.

Harry, by contrast, has an inflated idea of his own importance. He loves to be the center of attention, pleading modesty and discretion — he would never discuss his work as a hangman, he insists, preferring to “leave the jibber-jabber to the riff-raffs” — when in fact, all he really wants is an audience. A vignette between him and the reporter in which Harry spills all about his work as a hangman is not just a hoot, but the key to his hubris, for “Hangmen’s” idea of justice hinges on whether Harry ever hanged (not “hung,” McDonagh repeatedly reminds) an innocent man. “Give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself,” they say of some folks, and McDonagh’s engineered an entire play — one laced with wicked black humor and an almost venomous sense of justice in the end — to demonstrate just how that might go. I feel fortunate to be among the few who saw it there at the Golden Theatre.

The Last to See ‘The Inheritance’

My best friend jokingly refers to my style of time management as “Tetris”: If I have 15 minutes open in my schedule, I’ll find some activity to slot in and fill it. Wednesday morning, I posted my review of “The Hunt” (did anyone see that movie, which got moved from its original release date after a couple of public shootings last August, only to be released just before movie theaters went dark in the U.S.?) and headed to my breakfast with the Tribeca team, then made a quick detour by the Cinetic offices (conveniently located halfway between brunch and Broadway) before catching the 1 p.m. curtain for part one of “The Inheritance.”

Now, I’m not going to re-review Lopez’s play. Rather, I want to give a sense of what it felt like to be there, taking it in all in a single day, on what would prove to be its last New York performance.

“The Inheritance” had been kind of limping along these past couple months. The New York critics had been more mixed toward the play than those in London, where it won four Olivier Awards, and one could tell from the web site, where all seats were being offered at discount prices, that it wasn’t selling well. There is just one woman in the entire cast (Lois Smith), and the audience was made up mostly of men as well, although I saw people of all ages and backgrounds. The matinee audience wasn’t completely full, although the evening show was sold out, with people lingering in the lobby hoping desperately for cancellations.

It seems so risky in retrospect, this social crowding. But once you’ve seen the first half of “The Inheritance,” you understand why people feel compelled to come back. I had sheltered myself from a lot of what had been written about the play going in, which allowed me to discover all the brilliant ways Lopez incorporates the concerns of the contemporary gay experience — from same-sex marriage to substance abuse — into a show that is about the luxury and the responsibility of being visible in a way that Forster never could. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the way the play raises the legacy of HIV at the end of the first act. A carryover from the London cast, Paul Hilton embodies two characters, Morgan (that is, E.M. Forster) and Walter, an older gay man who, in a single devastating monologue, explains how he fled the outbreak of this new disease to a farmhouse upstate, isolating himself until he couldn’t any longer. The house becomes a symbol, “the inheritance” of the play’s title, that expands in significance as the show goes on.

As Hilton delivered this first account of the AIDS outbreak onstage, a man somewhere in the balcony started to sob. It was a profound, soul-rattling sound, almost a wail, like something you might hear in a gospel revival tent. He couldn’t hold it back. The emotion bellowed up and spilled over, and everyone in that theater heard it. The cast could hear it. His sobs continued, echoing through the room for the next few minutes, serving as a kind of nonverbal permission to all in attendance to let ourselves absorb and feel the moment as fully as possible. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it in a theater — a kind of deep, collective catharsis — and it returned even stronger and more irresistible at the end of the first part, when Lopez finds a powerful way to communicate the scope of the epidemic.

During “Hangmen” the night before, I had been hyper-attuned to the sound of coughing in the theater, and I’d been impressed that, except for a lone cell phone that went off at the worst possible moment — ringing during the final line of the play (no doubt someone’s after-theater date wondering where they were) — the audience had been uncommonly silent. But what do you make of a room full of crying adults, dabbing their eyes in the dark? How is that not a recipe to spread the coronavirus?

One of the most powerful treatments of the AIDS epidemic that I’ve ever seen is a three-hour Swedish miniseries from 2012 called “Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves.” The heartbreaking title conveys the uncertainty health care professionals felt when first treating patients with HIV, spoken in reprimand by a nurse when one of her colleagues attempts to comfort a dying man. Tony Goldwyn’s character, Henry, expresses some of that same paranoia in “The Inheritance,” but here we are living it again. Today, we know how to protect ourselves from HIV, but as I think back on my decision to travel to New York — where coronavirus cases are being reported in staggering numbers, taxing a medical system that can’t handle them all — I can’t help but feel incredibly naive.

The following day, March 12, I boarded a 7 a.m. flight back to Los Angeles. By the time I landed, the news was out that Broadway had been closed for a month. I’ve been in self-isolation ever since. And the ultimate irony: I’d made this incredibly reckless trip on the assumption that I might never get to see “The Inheritance” on stage again, but the very morning I flew out, L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse announced next year’s season. The crown jewel, coming in January 2021, will be Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance.”

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