Critic’s Notebook: Oh, the dreaded intermission: Long plays at a time when shorter is sweeter

Time-starved theatergoers may be pushing playwrights toward shorter, intermission-less productions, but some new works still run longer than they should.
(Jonathan Bartlett / For The Times)
Theater Critic

Recently while scrolling through Facebook, I came across the lament of a playwright who was distressed that the new play he was writing seemed to require an intermission. I had no personal knowledge of the author, but I instantly recognized the sentiment.

The vogue for shorter plays is undeniable. Ask me while stuck in traffic on my way to the Mark Taper Forum or the Geffen Playhouse what my favorite dramatic genre is and I’ll likely say, “90 minutes, no intermission.”

Don’t judge me. I’ve seen more revivals of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” than episodes of “Friends.” I am a devoted student of Shakespeare, whose plays are spread over five long acts. And some of the greatest highs I’ve had in a theater have come from Wagnerian operas that threatened to never end.

But there are times when an usher informs me that the new play I’m about to see is 2 ½ hours long and I feel like an animal whose cage door is being slammed.

Theatergoing, like air travel today, is expensive without being luxurious. Where has common-sense etiquette gone? The other day a woman seated next to me spent the first 15 minutes of the show trying to figure out how to turn off her blindingly bright phone.

But I’m not here to complain about crinkling candy wrappers or the acoustical battles between hearing aids and assisted listening devices. My concern is an art form that doesn’t always seem in sync with modern life. Plays without intermissions may be gaining in popularity, but the convention of two acts separated by 15-minutes of lobby dithering is still deeply entrenched. An assumption persists that longer works have more range and ambition, as if depth were a function of backside penance.

Anyone who has read the ancient Greek tragedians, Samuel Beckett or Caryl Churchill knows what can be achieved in an unbroken act of inexorable drama. But it’s in the more pretentious reaches of the commercial theater — the haute middlebrow, if you will — that mid-20th century Broadway traditions are still the default.

The stretching out of plays by intermissions might make sense for producers worried about the sales revenue of overpriced food and drink. But the practice is a holdout from an era when people had discrete work hours, less harried commutes and minds that were free of Facebook, Twitter and email nudges.

Here are a few of the reasons I hate intermissions: They force you to make dinner reservations that are either too early or too late; they add to the already maddening crowd control problems; they disrupt the dramatic flow; and, perhaps most important of all, they encourage playwrights to pad rather than to hone their works.

My concern is an art form that doesn’t always seem in sync with modern life.

Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, but I wonder if her politically prescient play about disaffected factory workers in Pennsylvania would have had a longer life on Broadway had a moratorium on intermissions compelled the author to tighten the expositional sprawl.

Another Broadway drama from last season that would have benefited from some aggressive pruning was Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other.” The play, which will be at the Geffen next year, explores the clash between modern values and inherited traditions in a story about a single gay man who feels increasingly alienated as, one by one, his female friends get married.

Despite the insouciant wit, ironic intelligence and wounded heart, “Significant Other” didn’t earn its two hours and 20 minutes of stage time. Somewhere lost in the overgrowth was a memorable 85-minute comedy capable of reaching its poignant conclusion without needless repetition or delay. The play might have increased its odds of becoming a modest Broadway hit had it, in its move from off-Broadway, surgically removed its intermission — a procedure that worked wonders for the Todd Almond-Matthew Sweet musical “Girlfriend” in its evolution from Berkeley Rep to the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

In the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet,” the chorus tells the audience that the tale will unfold within “the two hours’ traffic of our stage.” Rarely, however, is this promise kept in contemporary revivals, which can tack on another 45 minutes with dillydallying set changes and loose intermissions. (Corralling people back from the lounge these days requires a bouncer’s vocal brawn.) Shakespeare’s instincts, however, shouldn’t be second-guessed. “Hamlet” and “King Lear” might not fit within these confines, but most theatrical stories comfortably can.

Hold your letters, readers. I’m aware that intermissions provide a convenient bathroom break. But we sit readily through films lasting two hours, and intermissions in musicals don’t always come before the 90-minute mark. When nature calls, she calls, and I’ve never in my years of theatergoing felt any outrage in having to let a fellow audience member scoot by me during a show. People get sick. Some are overwhelmed by boredom or personal worry. Others may just hate what they’re watching. It’s a free country. Everyone has the right to get up and leave at will.

Let’s not permit restroom business to blind us to the obvious truth that intensity is more alluring in our age of distraction than extended duration. But I’m not asking artists to capitulate to the demands of our ever-shrinking attention spans. I would like them, however, to think harder about the relationship between fictive and real time.

Aristotle tells us in “Poetics” that tragedy begins with an action “that is complete and whole and has some magnitude.” Size matters. But plots that are too long are as ill-advised as those that are too short. “They should have length, but such that they are easy to remember” is the rule Aristotle prescribes.

Ultimately it’s the scale of experience, not the hours clocked, that matters most. What is the dramatist asking a protagonist or set of characters to undergo? Edward Albee wrote plays that were as compact as “The Zoo Story” and as prolonged as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He disliked the label “full-length” to describe the longer works because he believed that even his most diminutive one-acts were complete and whole and of sufficient magnitude.

I share his undogmatic view of dramatic lengths, but too often it seems that playwrights are conforming to a format that is not in the service of their own storytelling. Whenever an intermission occurs before anything meaningful has taken place, I know that a producing template is dictating the narrative form.

This discussion, it should be noted, has been happening since the dawn of the modern theater. In his indelible preface to his 1888 masterpiece “Miss Julie,” August Strindberg felt confident that his new 90-minute work would be palatable to modern sensibilities “since people can listen to a lecture, a sermon or a conference session for that length of time or even longer.” But he looked forward to an era when an audience would be “so educated that it could sit through a single act lasting an entire evening,” though he knew that this would “require some preliminary experimentation.”

The research and development that Strindberg pursued more than a century ago needs to press on. I’m happy to see Broadway has been playing with start times and been more open to presenting work that gets the job done as efficiently and expertly as Lucas Hnath’s lean “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

Chris Cooper and Laurie Metcalf in Lucas Hnath's
Chris Cooper and Laurie Metcalf in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at the Golden Theatre in New York. (Brigitte Lacombe)

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Less isn’t always more, but more for the sake of more is invariably a trudge. I have no beef against epic work. Next week I’ll be taking a busman’s holiday to London, where I’ll be devoting a full day to the National Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” I’ll also be seeing Jez Butterworth’s highly praised “The Ferryman,” which has a running time of (gulp!) three hours and 15 minutes.

Good work can stretch on until the crack of doom. (My favorite novel, Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” does just that.) I don’t know how well my stamina will hold up for Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” when UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance presents the marathon at the Theatre at Ace Hotel next year, but I wouldn’t miss sampling it.

J.T. Rogers’ three-hour “Oslo,” which won the Tony Award for best play this year, would probably have nabbed my vote. I confess that halfway through the production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, I looked at my watch and felt like a marathoner at the 13-mile mark. But the lengthiness was artistically justified. Rogers’ drama is about the give and take of diplomacy, a protracted art in which setbacks are inevitable in a process that must be ongoing if peace is to have a fighting chance.

Playwrights are entitled to take it slow when slowness is integral to their vision. Annie Baker’s microscopic focus on the telltale incidentals of human behavior in “The Flick” and “John” (which makes innovative scripted use of its second intermission) may have tested the patience of some theatergoers, but style and substance are perfectly aligned.

In her most recent offering, “The Antipodes,” Baker trapped the audience in a writers room for the entirety of a play that would have betrayed itself by stopping for a comfort break. The running time, a few minutes shy of Shakespeare’s two hours’ stage traffic, challenged bladders but made dramatic sense. The cabin fever of these salaried scribes (directly experienced by theatergoers) was intrinsic to the work’s pressurized meaning.

“Remorse for the brevity of a Book is a rare emotion," Emily Dickinson sagaciously observed. These words lend themselves readily to contemporary plays. But it’s the laxity in artistic purpose, not the length of the writing, that makes us wish playwrights would be more conscientious in how they use that most precious gift of time.

Follow me @charlesmcnulty


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