GUESTWORDS: Other Desert Coughs

By Hy Abady

   I love live theater. Musicals, mostly. Sondheim — what’s not to love? I see as much of it as I can.
    I recently read a lot of stuff about a performance by the New York Philharmonic that was held hostage by a ringing cellphone. It stopped the orchestra, stopped the show — the conductor was mortified and embarrassed the guy whose phone disrupted it all. (Surprised he doesn’t have a reality show yet. Suggested title: “The Cell Bells Are Ringing.”)
    Patti LuPone has been known to stop the show and scream out “Louise!” when a cellphone flash goes off mid-“Gypsy.”
    These distractions are decidedly annoying.
    The other night I went to see “Other Desert Cities,” a hit for its writer, Jon Robin Baitz, and still one more hit for its director, Joe Mantello — Hamptonites both. I met Robbie, as Mr. Baitz is known, and had dinner with him and a mutual friend right here at the Meeting House in Amagansett Square not too long ago. Lovely guy. Talented, too.
    “Other Desert Cities” is a serious piece, also filled with humor, about a dysfunctional family. Hello? Is there a family that isn’t? But even me, as a serious writer (if you can call this column serious), I have to take my hat off to Robbie for writing this thing, for mounting this piece, with the help of his ex-boyfriend Mr. Mantello. I’m impressed. Stockard Channing (although she was not at the performance that particular evening; her understudy, Lauren Klein, was on instead), Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light, and Justin Kirk are all wonderful in their roles. I’m presuming Ms. Griffiths and Robbie are friends, as she starred in his now-over-but-no-doubt-in-syndication “Brothers and Sisters,” that TV series also starring the “You like me! You really like me!” Sally Field.
    Okay. That’s another story.
    “Other Desert Cities” is a fine show, if slightly overwritten. I’m no critic; I’m just an audience. But this particular audience was overwhelmed by the amount of coughing accompanying the show from the rest of the audience.
    The woman directly behind me coughed, on cue, every 30 seconds. Cacophonous coughs bounced off and down from the mezzanine; coughs resounded from all around. There were sniffles and sneezes, too, and some cellophane rattling. But the coughing!
    After a while, not long into the show, I became transfixed by all the coughing. It was like a soundtrack. The coughs came and came — double coughs, single coughs, phlegmy coughs, dry ones. After a little longer while, I wasn’t paying any attention at all to the clever dialogue. As it accelerated in its seriousness, as Rachel Griffiths (Brooke Wyeth in the play, the writer character) reached her crescendo, the coughs accelerated too. I didn’t hear a word of what was going on onstage. I just waited, practically breathlessly, for the next cough, which did not disappoint. The next cough came on the heels of the previous cough — there wasn’t a 10-second period when the coughing did not come. I can’t imagine how the cast kept it together.
    I saw “West Side Story” when it was recently revived on Broadway. I went with my friend and colleague Tom, whom I share an office with and who, coincidentally, coughs constantly. Tom is a mild-mannered guy, pleasant, well meaning. But behind us in the theater that night was a guy eating a bag of Lay’s potato chips. Noisily. So very noisily that after this guy’s continual crunching of the chips (betcha can’t eat just one!), Tom stepped out of character and turned around to the chipster and grabbed the bag from his hand, crushed it, and threw it on the floor at his feet. Bravo!
    In “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (a Sondheim show), there is in the prologue song this lyric: “So please, don’t cough, it tends to throw the actors off . . .” and then a bit about cellophane unwrapping. It is a fun number, crisp and clever, classic Sondheim, with a lot of truth in it. There are multiple distractions that can occur in a theater where hundreds of people are brought together in a supposed quiet and even austere place, the theater. But the coughing predominates. (And, while we’re, or, rather, I’m, on the subject, can we talk about the coughing on the Jitney?)
    It’s been a mild winter, the winter that wasn’t, with temps primarily in the 50s. But people still get sick. And people, sick and coughing and sneezing and all, come to the theater, entitled with their $100-plus tickets. We are reminded, sometimes more than once, to turn off our cellphones and beepers (does anyone still have a beeper, or wear a hat?). We are asked to unwrap our cellophane-wrapped candies in advance. But no one says anything about coughing. One can cough, anyone and everyone can cough, and can constantly cough, can continually cough, can cough over and over again, coughs just as annoying, if not more so, than a ringing cellphone. Gee, I wonder if one can get a ring tone that sounds like coughing?
    I sit like a mouse in my seat, scrunched up and quiet and attentive to the players, while everyone around me coughs. If I have to clear my throat, I do it silently for fear of stares and glares, while everyone around me coughs away. It’s an involuntary gesture, coughing. It comes on you automatically, without planning or warning. A cough escapes out of one’s mouth without forethought. Coughs just seem to come.
    But no one onstage is coughing unless it is written into the script. How come everyone coughs in the theater? And coughs even louder when there’s a ring of applause, as though people are suddenly set free to let it all hang out while there are loud noises happening? I don’t notice the coughing nearly as much in musicals — I guess because there is often loud music playing.
    Finally, I can’t tell you how “Other Desert Cities” ended exactly. I can tell you it was basically and ultimately and utterly ruined for me by the number of coughs and coughers. Thank God for the intermission! I rushed out into the 55-degree winter air and was able to find a quiet spot for 10 minutes in Shubert Alley before I went back in, ears cocked to the coughing. As if it were a part of the piece.
    Well, maybe it’s just me. Or maybe it isn’t.
    Hy Abady, a creative director at a New York advertising agency, is the author of "Back in The Star Again: True Stories From the East End." He lives part time in Amagansett.