Thursday, August 10, 2006

Waiting for Meryl

"So what are you doing here?" asked a woman who was observing the line that had sprouted from 79th St. in Central Park, as if The Gates had been revived in human form.

Good question. What was I doing, on line at the Delacorte in at 9am, waiting to pick up a pair of free tickets for tonight's performance of Mother Courage? After all, via the Drama Desk, I have a ticket for the show.

But just one. There's usually two made available, but not this time. My wife doesn't have one. So off I went to sit and wait, for the first time in three years, to pick up a pair, if I'm lucky. For Lora to see Meryl Streep, live onstage, I would do this.

I've never seen her perform onstage either. I had the opportunity five years ago, at another of the Public Theater's outdoor shows, Mike Nichols' famously starry version of The Seagull, the Murder on the Orient Express of Chekhov plays in that instance: Streep, Christopher Walken (who dropped out of Mother Courage), Kevin Kline (who dropped in), Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Star Jones, Justin Timberlake...the list just went on and on. But I passed. Under murky circumstances I had been "laid off" from a magazine I had been editing, one that no longer exists (same thing happened to the next one I worked on, which explains why I work from the security of home now). I was licking my wounds in the air-cooled splendor of my parents' house so when the call came summoning me back to New York I just shrugged it off. It was an unbearably hot and humid August day, past the century mark, and The Seagull would have been just so much fried chicken up there. You don't want to be stuck at the Delacorte on a sultry summer night. Bar none the worst evening of theater in my entire life was a woeful Delacorte production of The Skin of Our Teeth, with John Goodman padding around in an outsized walrus fur coat. That one person could sweat so much I never knew.

Five years later, I will not be denied a second chance to bask in the radiance of Meryl. The woman is on fire: The Devil Wears Prada, best Hollywood movie of the summer (really). Singing country with Lindsay Lohan and Lily Tomlin in A Prairie Home Companion. The Ant Bully (well, two out of three). No one seems to care that Kline, whose profile has dimmed, is in this. Hell, no one seems to care that it's Mother Courage, not exactly a day at the beach.

"Does anyone know what this show is about?" asks a woman behind me.

No answer. Let's face it--who cares what it is? If Meryl Streep wants to play the masturbating gorilla in a revival of the notorious 2004 Broadway flop Prymate, you'd show up and see it. It's Meryl Streep.

I pipe up. "It's Brecht."

"Not Shakespeare? Isn't this Shakespeare in the Park?"

No, not Shakespeare. You must've missed this summer's earlier Delacorte production, Macbeth, starring Liev Schreiber. You know, Meryl's son in The Manchurian Candidate remake?

"Nope, not Shakespeare."

A "Hmmm" look crossed her face. "Is it funny?" she asked.

"Funny" is a very relative term here. I'd only ever read Mother Courage. It's darkly humorous, I guess, and the adapter, Tony Kushner, can be a funny guy when not bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"It's not ha-ha funny, or I doubt it will be," I volunteer, adding, "I hear it's also three-and-a-half hours long."

"Oh, Christ," she muttered.

I understood. God hadn't spared me the horror of the Roundabout's awful production of The Threepenny Opera in the spring. Brechtian alienation has perhaps dated better than ol' Bertolt himself. But here I was again. On line. For Meryl. Maybe next time she'll do Moliere or something more enticing. For now, she had chosen to haul this burden up a mountain, and I'd be there to watch.

I had arrived at around 9, late for a show of this star caliber. Others had been in Central Park since dawn, as the line snaked around hill and dale. I put on my iPod, rested my head on my bag, and dozed off for a bit on my tatami mat. The flautist who has performed every time I've waited for tickets woke me with his Abba renditions. "Look, it makes sense...Mother Courage is the Thirty Years War, in Sweden, like Abba..."

I guess it did at that. The lady I had tried to educate had vanished; apparently, multiple hours of this Brecht guy, with or without America's shining star, was too much to bear. She was gone.

And sensibly so. After four hours of waiting I had snagged...a standby voucher, good for tonight only. Most everyone in back of me had failed to make even that cut. We have to go back at 6:30 to see if Lora can get a seat.

And it's raining. Good news, as it will increase the likelihood of standbys getting in. All may have been in vain if the performance is cancelled, which has never happened to me before. [I've sat through shows with monsoon-level amounts of rain, just so long as there's no lightning.]

But it's all more or less, sort-of worth it. All to see Meryl. I hope.

POSTSCRIPT. And it was...more on that when the show opens, on Aug. 21. For now I can say the experience was extraordinary--after an hour-long rain delay (during which numerous ticketholders and standbys defected) we had our pick of the vacant seats, under a calm, crisp, cool sky. The park was incredibly quiet, which really focused our attention on the piece (which seems to have been pared, to just over three hours). A memorable night.

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