Short Attention Span Theater? – Laura Shea

April may not be the cruelest month, but on the Broadway stage, it is definitely the busiest. Almost nightly there is another opening, another show. To be considered for a Tony Award, and everyone on Broadway wants to be considered for a Tony Award, shows must open by the Tony deadline, which this year is April 27. The Tony Award may exist to reward artistic excellence, but it is also a marketing tool, a stamped seal of approval for potential ticket buyers debating which show to see this season.

What several shows have in common, whether musical or straight play, is the distinct lack of an intermission. Ninety minutes, you’re in, you’re out. In 1879, when Henrik Ibsen wrote a controversial play called A Doll’s House, after three full acts, and following the most famous door slam in literature, Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children to become her own person rather than exist as the dancing doll she is expected to be, merely an ornamental feature of the household. Twenty years after the play was written, Ibsen was still disclaiming that he consciously worked for women’s rights, saying, “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights.” If the play is interpreted as an argument for the basic human rights of those who lack them in the nineteenth century, that would certainly include women.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2, a new play by Lucas Hnath, Nora (played by Laurie Metcalf) returns after 15 years to see the family she left behind. It’s not so much an emotional journey as a practical one, and each of the four characters (Nora, her husband Torvald, Anne Marie, the nanny, and Emmy, Nora’s grown daughter) have their say. Although a recent online ad described the play as “A Mother’s Day Gift Every Family Can Enjoy” (I guess it would depend on the family), the discussion ends after ninety minutes whether or not issues have been resolved. Does that leave room for a Doll’s House, Part 3?

A very different show that goes intermissionless is Amelie, a musical based on the quirky 2001 French romantic comedy, with Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Eliza Hamilton in the musical Hamilton, in the title role. Amelie is a shy and isolated waitress in Montmartre, who begins to engage with the world when she is inspired by the philanthropic work of Princess Diana, and decide to improve the lives of those around her.

Musicals usually have a running time of two and a half to two and three quarters hours (after three hours, there’s overtime to pay). Imagine my surprise when the running time of Amelie was listed as ninety minutes. How do they get everything in, including the music? Answer: They run. The role of Amelie is beautifully sung by Ms. Soo, who moves non stop through most of those ninety minutes, with multiple trips up and down a staircase that curves above the stage. She is followed in hot pursuit by the rest of the cast who inject an energy into those ninety minutes that never flags.

So whom can we thank or blame for this recent mini-trend? Producers love ninety-minute productions. That usually means a single set instead of expensive scenery that must find its way to the stage, probably mechanically but possible under human power, and has a tendency to get stuck, especially during previews. But plays are written and musicals assembled long before a producer is attached. We can always blame technology for shortening our attention spans and our willingness to sit still for over two hours. In reality, the current audience member who can afford a ticket to a Broadway show is closer to Social Security than Snapchat. While baby boomers have mastered their smartphones, they grew up without them, and are not conditioned to check them as frequently as millennials do. And is the intermissionless evening in the theater really such a bad thing? I must admit, I was a little relieved to find out the Amelie would be a fleet ninety minutes than a lumbering two-plus hours. In no way did I feel cheated by this production or by the equally speedy A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Another show on my theatergoing schedule is the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate in the roles of Regina, the rapacious Southern belle who will do anything to gain the money that is her only route to power, and Birdie, her sweet, sad, defeated sister in law. Written in 1939, Hellman’s play relies on melodrama to make its points, but it does offer different portraits of female characters and the choices available to them. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the two-hour play manages to include two intermissions. Act I and Act II are thirty-five minutes, each act followed by an intermission. A seventy-minute first act would not have strained anyone’s attention span, but Hellman included the intermissions to serve the play, and the play is performed as written. But the multiple intermissions reminded me of a time when people went to the theater for the intermissions as much as the play, to see and be seen. Now there are other platforms on which to make our presence felt.