Sunday, November 14:
Theatre has returned to New York, of course, but only under certain restrictions necessitated by the Covid pandemic. Over the past two months it’s been encouraging to see the number of people in the Times Square district increase exponentially, although still not to the level of pre-Covid days, when you could barely walk down Eighth Avenue without being forced into the gutter.
I’ve seen seventeen shows, on and Off Broadway, since September. For a reviewer, that’s not as many as it might seem. I’ve actually been more selective this season, given some of the discomforts necessitated by the theatregoing process and the wish to expose myself to the virus as little as possible, both in theatres and on public transportation (I subway in from South Queens).
Since most—not all—shows provide critics with two seats, many of us have plus-one lists of people we invite to accompany us. Mine includes over twenty people; however, over half of those have decided not to accept my invitations until they feel safer about going to the theatre. Mind you, these are all sophisticated theatregoers who ordinarily would be reluctant to turn down offers to see theatre for free, and to simultaneously enjoy my iridescent presence.
And even offers made to my reduced list have rarely gotten more than one bite; several people who asked to remain on the list still have not responded to my invitations. Clearly, there’s a great deal of hesitancy about returning under the present circumstances, not least the need to show vaccination proof and wear a mask. And while more and more people, tourists and locals, have been filling theatre seats, notable gaps can be seen in the auditoriums of shows that aren’t hit musicals.
Many people ask me, and, I’m sure, my fellow reviewers, what’s it like to go to the theatre these days? Well, speaking only for myself, I can say it ain’t thrilling. I am, after all, in my early 80s and, though still spry, am faced by the usual geriatric obstacles. This means one must get to the theatre early so as to have time for passing through the gauntlet of safety and personal needs obstacles.
On Broadway (and, in some cases, Off) you must line up outside and wait for the processing of theatregoers to begin. This means you must show some proof of your having had two shots (on a card or phone app) along with a photo ID to prove it’s actually you who’s been jabbed. Oldsters, of course, especially those unprepared for the experience, may struggle as they manipulate their phones, purses, and wallets, causing delays for others on the line. The weather has been mostly mild so far, but when it’s not, doing this outdoors can make the experience that much more uncomfortable. I foresee this being something the coming months hold in store.
Next, you must pass through a metal detector or have a security person poke through your bag with a long flashlight wand. Naturally, everyone’s wearing a mask, which can muffle spoken instructions from the staff. If you’re flustered on a muggy day, expect the sweat to flow and your glasses to fog up.
Once inside, if you’re like me, you may wish to visit the restroom before taking your seat. Social distancing, I assure you, is paid no more than lip service at the facilities, with so many people needing to take care of business. And, since many theatres have insufficient stalls for women, some men’s rooms are seeing women using them when their own lines are too long. Modesty be damned. Off Broadway, by the way, has seen a proliferation of gender-neutral bathrooms over the last few years, so the person washing their hands next to you will likely not share your particular gender.
Senior citizens, like me, will often want to use the free assistive listening devices available at many theatres. In the past, most users simply handed over their driver’s license as surety for the safe return of the devices. Now, a number of Broadway theatres (not all) have the person providing the devices enter your contact info on an IPad, making it unnecessary to leave your license or photo ID. While this makes it easier to depart by simply dropping off your device, it can seriously clog up the pre-curtain time available as you wait on line for others to complete the process.
Finally, you take your seat, remove your outer wear, wipe the steam off your glasses, mop the sweat off your brow, and get ready for the show to start. When the show ends you race for the exits (try racing out of a crowded Broadway theatre) so you can get to the street and rip the mask off your face for the few minutes of fresh air before you descend into the subway.
On the other hand, as happened to me at Saturday's matinee, you may never get this far.
As I said, I’ve seen my fair share of shows since September, and got through the gauntlet with flying colors each time—until this past weekend. I was booked to pick up a pair of ducats to a major Broadway show and, as on multiple recent occasions, brought along a plus-one regular. Naturally, she had a card proving that she had her second shot. However, while the CVS pharmacy clearly recorded it as her second shot, they didn’t list her first. That’s because she’d lost her first card and, when she got the second shot, they listed only that one. You’d think that since it says “second shot” or something similar that would be sufficient.
But this theatre’s Covid supervisor, sympathetic but firm, said his bosses were very strict. So my plus-one searched and searched her emails for the CVS confirmation of her two-shot status. She didn’t have an Excelsior pass because she’d had technical problems downloading one and hadn’t bothered calling their help line for assistance. Besides, none of the other theatres we’d been to had made a fuss. But now it was beginning to rain, curtain time was approaching, and we were getting nervous.
Seeing no alternative, I approached the box office, canceled the seats, and left on the subway with my plus-one for Queens. She kept rifling through her old emails on the train. Several stops away, there it was: bingo! In the best of all subway systems, we might have turned around and made it back in time, but New York isn’t Tokyo.
The lesson, of course, is that, if you're in a situation like my plus-one's, you shouldn't assume your vaccination card will get you in, even if it says you've had both shots.
Later on Sunday she visited CVS and got a proper statement of her vaccination status. For some technical reason, however, the Excelsior pass remains a hill she's still trying to climb.