I love these alternate line readings.
by Cynthia Wands
I’m including this amusing graphic of “Reading Between the Lines”, as a warning that the “provocative” ( – irritating) story I’m about to tell, could be seen as something written “in the tradition of” (- shamelessly derivative) as multiple points of view. Like every story. Like every play.
In November I was invited to the opening night of “THE HARD PROBLEM”, by Tom Stoppard at Lincoln Center. (I know how posh that sounds – I loved writing it.) When I was a young actor I performed in a couple of Tom Stoppard plays and I’ve always delighted in his witty characters, the mental gymnastics, the world of words in his writing.
My sister was taking me to this opening night performance, and we went out to an early dinner, (yes, she got us a table at Joe Allen’s). Someone I love very much was in the cast, and like a lot of writers, I tend to live vicariously through the lives of others, this was a peak experience. Flowers for opening night. Joe Allen’s. My sister. Lincoln Center. A star performer I have always championed doing incredible work in the show.
That’s the top line of this story.
Other threads in the story: I’ve been in and been to dozens of opening nights in my lifetime. This one was intense. This Lincoln Center opening night had celebrities (Rosemary Harris – who I have always loved as an actress – sat in front of us), a new play for New York, a famous playwright, a glamorous setting. You could feel that live wire electricity in the audience.
I was sitting next to my sister on one side, and a very elegant gentleman on my other side. I had a brief, theatrical conversation with him. (He reminded me of Colonel Pickering in “MY FAIR LADY”; very cultured, articulate, and handsome. Perfect casting.)
Another thread: I was feeling very protective about my sister that night; she had recently sprained her ankle and was walking with a cane. She fearlessly walked into the theatre. I was on high alert watching out for her; something I have to try and hide from her as she hates to be fussed over by me like that.
The connecting thread: when we entered the theatre, we saw that a young man in the seat next to us had his large suitcases wedged in our row. We hesitated – this seemed odd. But there were no ushers to be found to sort this out, so we had to climb over his suitcases to get to our seats. We eventually were able to sit down, and we waited for the play to begin. We were in high spirits, and I suppose, rather nervous.
I love opening nights: the whispers in the lobby, the ebb and flow as the audience comes in, the scuttle of the ushers up and down the stairs. I know what it feels like to be backstage waiting in the wings before the lights come up. Nowadays I see myself in the audience as a kind of satellite receiver, boosting the transmissions being beamed across the theatre.
But on this night…
Yes, on this night, I had my first case of sudden and severe gastric distress. It started as soon as we sat down in the theatre and I started reading the program for the play. Like the first scary music in a horror film, I heard this growling sound. And then more noises, like a garbage disposal chewing up your forks from a dinner party. But then I realized that these thumping noises were coming from me. I’d never heard these sounds before. And then this wrenching bolt of intestinal pain shot through me. It was a spontaneous gastrointestinal nightmare.
(Thinking back on the dinner at Joe Allen’s: it was a simple supper of chicken and vegetables. And a glass of champagne. And then a cup of coffee. And I seem to remember that we split a dessert of some kind. It all seemed like an innocent menu at the time. Was it the chicken? The coffee? It couldn’t possibly be the dessert, could it, the one I can’t remember?)
But back at the play: an announcement was made that all cell phones should be turned off, the house lights changed, and the play started. I seemed to be okay. I focused on the words from the actors. I used mindful meditation breathing. The play was unfolding into twists and turns, I thought I was good.
But during the play, the young man sitting next to my sister, the man with the big suitcases, pulled out his cell phone, turned it on, and started to watch a soccer game. On his phone, during the play. The sound was off, but the flickering light from the phone lit up the entire row. You could see the audience members turn around as they tried to gesture to him to turn it off. He ignored them.
The people next to him asked him to turn off his phone. He shrugged his shoulders. They left to find an usher. They returned, without an usher. He continued to watch his soccer game on his phone. After a moment, my sister turned to him and in a sotto voce tone like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (after the fall), she told him to turn off his phone.
He turned off his phone.
The audience’s attention returned to the play. It was a Rubik’s cube of ideas, characters, and intentions. I’m still thinking about it two months later. At one point there is a revelation of betrayal in the play, underplayed so quietly, you might not be sure you heard it.
There was a moment of quiet in the audience.
And then it started up again. My growling noises. It sounded like the rumbling sounds coming from a brass cannon in a far away civil war. Or: It sounded like a huge garbage truck digesting a weeks worth of garbage. Or: I was the only person who could hear it and I was mistakenly afraid that others were bothered by it.
I’m not sure which version is correct, but I tried to look unfazed and focused on the play.
And while I tried to make it look like it wasn’t me making that noise, inside, I was trying to scold my digestive system into silence.
Knock it off! You’re as bad as the guy with phone watching the soccer game! Stop that! I mean, cut it out!
I wrestled with the idea of getting up, climbing over my sister and the man with iPhone and the large suitcases, scrabbling over the other audience members, and taking my borborygmus with me. (I found out later that what I experienced has the scientific name borborygmus, which is related to the 16th-century French word borborygme, itself from Latin, ultimately from Ancient Greek. It sounds better than the other available diagnostic titles: bubble gut, bowel sound, or stomach rumble.)
But then. The play ended. The applause and the ovations were over. And as we left, my sister turned to the young man and in a low voice, gave him such a warning that I don’t think he’ll show up with his iPhone and soccer games in an audience again.
We made our way to the opening night party, and eventually my digestive system quieted down. Or it might have been that the music and the noise from the party was so loud that no one could hear me and my personal rumblings. I guess it all depends on what line reading you choose.