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Charles McNulty: Hoping the pandemic ends a theatrical tradition

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Charles McNulty

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The intermission was already on shaky ground before the pandemic. The convention of the two-act play, interrupted by 15 minutes of recess, was starting to feel like a relic of the theatergoing past.

After lockdown, the interval's days seem numbered. The vaccines appear to be miraculous, but they won't erase all our qualms about indoor public gatherings. It's hard to imagine even the most die-hard spectators wanting to spend more time than necessary crowding into lobbies between acts for overpriced wine and snacks or waiting in bathroom lines in unsavory cramped spaces.

Broadway, flying a retrograde flag, is dragging out its warhorses ("The Phantom of the Opera," "Jersey Boys"), hoping to convince at least its former customers that nothing has changed. But this illusion will be hard to sustain as playwrights gravitate toward more compact forms and directors look to condense classics as artfully as the National Theatre's "Romeo & Juliet" film that aired on PBS' "Great Performances" in April.

Putting aside COVID-19 anxieties, does anyone believe that TikTok, Twitter and four years of Donald Trump in the White House have increased our capacity to sit quietly in a room together? Our restlessness predates quarantine.

In my theatergoing lifetime, I've witnessed the ascendancy of the 90-minute, straight-through drama, a form better suited to modern schedules and attention spans. Shorter has become synonymous with sweeter, though the epic hasn't gone entirely out of fashion.

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Marathon dramas, those endurance tests that turn a play into an Olympic event, can still draw a crowd. Broadway audiences have been willing to pay top dollar for the discomforts of daylong performances of "Wolf Hall," "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," "The Inheritance" and the National Theatre's revival of "Angels in America."

But these are promoted as special offerings, distinct from the playgoing rule. Perhaps the most noticeable trend in recent years has been the lengthening of acceptable running times for intermission-less drama. The 90-minute play was often in reality closer to 100 minutes, not counting the delayed start. But longer durations have become more common.

Before COVID forced theaters to go dark, I noticed an increase in intermission-less shows approaching and sometimes exceeding the two-hour mark. Ivo van Hove's Broadway revival of "West Side Story" was truncated into a single act that let out just before 10 p.m. Twice I saw Jeremy O. Harris' "Slave Play" in New York, and twice I felt a bit creaky as I tried standing up after more than two hours of sitting.

My back and bladder may have complained, but not to the point where I thought, "Hey, can't we stop the show for 15 minutes so I can wander the halls of the theater and exchange banalities with others waiting to relieve themselves?"

I prefer to experience plays the way I experience films at the movie theater — uninterrupted. At night when I awake momentarily from dreaming, I can rarely, if ever, restart the same dream when I fall back to sleep. The spell is broken. A new storyline must take unconscious root.

Playwrights do the dreamwork for us, but our absorption is required. And unless a complicated set change demands an extended time out, I'd prefer not to have to return to the workaday world until the play is over.

Intermissions might not be so objectionable if house management were conducted with more discipline. At smaller theaters with inadequate public facilities, I have found myself at the mercy of bathroom stragglers who decide at the last minute that they'd better use the john before the resumption of a show — in a venue in which it's virtually impossible to seat anyone once a play is in progress.

From a purely public health standpoint, the convention of the intermission is starting to look like pre-pandemic folly. Do we really want more opportunity for our germs to frolic together? And if masks will continue to be worn in congregate indoor settings for the foreseeable future, shouldn't we limit the amount of time each of us must spend inhaling stale cloth?

As for theatergoers' diminishing attention spans, an argument can be made for or against giving today's phone-antsy audiences a breather. But we shouldn't mistake artistic shortcomings for societal deficiencies.

A drama that's well constructed can take however long it takes. The clock becomes an issue only when the storytelling lags. What vexes isn't the duration but the dillydallying.

Visions of slowly moving bathroom lines with floor decals instructing patrons how far apart to stand could have some of us pining for the good old days of Zoom theater.

Charles McNulty is the theater critic of the Los Angeles Times.

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