This evening, for the first time in years, I partook in a longstanding New York tradition — I “second-acted” a Broadway show. Not just any show, mind you, but Grey Gardens. I’d seen it in its off-Broadway incarnation, but with news that it would shutter at the end of this month, I wanted, nay, needed to see it again. Plus, GG is the perfect show to second act– while the first half is an ingenious imagining of the Beales’ younger days, the second draws largely from the cult documentary, with Big Edie and Little Edie wallowing in the squalor of Grey Gardens, picking through the refuse of their lives in their inimitable, iconoclastic style.
I was a tad nervous as I approached the Walter Kerr on 48th street and knew if I were to pull of the caper I’d need to be, to borrow a word from Little Edie, staunch. I had checked Playbill.com earlier in the day and saw that the show had been playing to about 94% capacity, but there were still tickets available on the Telecharge website so surely there’d be one or two still unoccupied, especially in the balcony.
I arrived shortly after nine and loitered across the street from the theater. By 9:11, the doors had opened and the audience came trickling out. I crossed the street, lit a cigarette, and mingled with the masses, and even bought two of the souvenir buttons from the merch stand on set up on the sidewalk. I lingered on the pavement, drawing out my cigarette, until what I calculated was about a few minutes until intermission would end. You don’t want to go into the theater too early, then you’re left wandering around and are more likely to arouse suspicion.
I made my way to the mezzanine, surreptitiously collecting a Playbill, a convenient prop to hold and to establish my legitimacy. The mezzanine was crowded, and almost every seat was filled, with more people milling around. It didn’t look promising. I climbed the next flight of stairs to the balcony.
The nosebleed seats in the balcony were almost full as well, but there were three that looked promisingly empty. I saw a guy on his cell phone, pacing back and forth, and took that as a cue to also take out my phone, to “check the time” or a “text message,” any number of excuses just hovering on my lips should someone ask what I was doing. I had my eye on three seats, one was the aisle seat on the last row of the middle section, the others were a pair at the front of the balcony, on house right. I gravitated towards the pair, and as I did I saw a familiar figure bound up the stairs, look around, then seeing that this area was almost full, feign an excuse in his head to go back downstairs. It was Shulman! Shulman was a portly theatre-lover I used to work with, and as I watched his balding pate descend the stairs I knew he was trying to pull a second-act swindle as well.
I took a seat in the first row, on the aisle, as the orchestra began the opening strains of the second act. I was in the clear. At least, until a tardy couple arrived and informed me that I had taken one of their two seats. I quietly surrendered my location and went to claim the one I’d spied earlier, the center section/last row/aisle seat, but when I got there I found it was occupied by none other than…Shulman! Damn! He’d bested me.
I crept back downstairs, wondering If I should just try to leave, feign illness to the usher guarding the door. I reached the orchestra and saw an empty place in the standing room section. I sidled up to the railing and took the spot, ready to say, should anyone ask, that I had a seat upstairs, but wanted to be closer. Luckily, no one questioned, and I was able to take in Christine Ebersole’s Tony-winning performance from the back of the house–a much better vantage point than the one occupied by Shulman. Save for the fact that he got to sit on his plump posterior for the hour-plus second act. Still, as Elbert Hubbard said, “Victory; a matter of staying power.” And as John Heilpern noted, “[S]tanding room can be the best seat in the house. The electricity that comes from a happy audience actually rolls down to the stage from the back of the house.” And so it was, and so it did. I did feel like I had the best seat in the house. Even if I were standing.
Related: Here’s Ebersole, sans Edie drag, singing the song “Around the World” from the musical.