“What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever seen in all your trips to the theater?”
It’s a question that people often gleefully ask me, expecting me to say MOOSE MURDERS. Yes, I saw it, but it isn’t nearly as bad as A COCKTAIL PARTY SOCIAL EXPERIMENT.
It may now and forever be my answer to that question.
This four-alarm atrocity is held downstairs at The Chelsea Music Hall at 407 West 15th Street – mercifully, just once a month on a Monday. So if, after returning to work after a lazy weekend, you want to see a show that night, go to CHICAGO or PHANTOM. Never mind WHAT awful shape they may be in at this point. If their casts now consist of rank amateurs or even trained fleas, you’re still better off at the Ambassador or the Majestic.
On Feb. 17 in this basement-with-a-bar, auteur Wil Petre reached into a bowl and drew slips on which audience members had written their names, all in hopes they’d be called to the stage. Those chosen played what Petre and Chiaka Murata have conceived and dubbed “A Cocktail Party Game.”
To be technical, it’s not a game at all, as those who were game enough to volunteer soon found out. They trotted up to the stage and were told to sit in a chair that was obscured by a microphone. Not a hand-held mic, no, but a microphone on a stand; think of the number 7 with the mic on the left end of the horizontal top which swings back and forth.
So the participants swung the mic away, sat down and returned it to its original position. After they were asked some benign questions (“Do you prefer paper or plastic?”) – which couldn’t have been of much interest to the audience – they were instructed to get up, walk to a table and choose one card each from two decks.
Why couldn’t the cards be on a table right next to the victims? Why make the poor souls push away the mic, get up, choose, return and pull the mic back? What a time-killer!
Those cards have symbols on them (ranging from a tornado to the sign for Mercury), which we learned when an overhead projector showed them on a screen. Then a book which offered a list of the combination of symbols, each of which had a question attached, was given to the contestants. Watching them flip to the index and then to the correct page to find the question that had to be answered (“Do you keep your friends close and your enemies closer?) killed more time.
(Or shall we say murdered it?)
As a result, the entertainment one gets from this “experiment” is wholly dependent on the wit and honesty that those on stage can dispense. On the night you attend (should you be so foolhardy), you may get some delightfully loquacious people. At this “performance,” however, one dud followed another. After many of them were queried, they often responded with “That’s a good question” – that all-purpose reply that’s a way of stalling for time.
During a football game, seconds tick by very quickly but on-stage when nothing is happening – nothing at all – seconds seem like minutes. “The Sound Silence may be golden in many situations, but it’s less than base metal in a theater.
When these poor souls finally did think of something they thought was interesting (which, incidentally, wasn’t), they blathered away until they could think of nothing else. So they wound up repeating what they’d already said, making a boring opening into a more boring closing.
The program offers no credit for direction, proving that even Alan Smithee wouldn’t put his name on this thing. But someone is desperately needed to come in and clean up the blocking.
The stage is a rectangular deck that’s approximately twice as long as it’s wide. Think of it as a horseshoe; at the top is where the overhead projector sits. On each side is a row of seats to which the participants are relegated after they’ve had their say (or lack of it), much the way those interviewed on THE TONIGHT SHOW head to the couch after they’ve left the chair next to Jimmy Fallon’s desk.
The bottom of the horseshoe is the only open part, which faces the center section of the audience. Those sitting there had a good-if-limited opportunity to see the on-stage “action.” But because there’s seating behind the left and right sides of the horseshoe, much of the audience could only see the backs of the participants who sat there post-interview.
Didn’t anyone connected with this “show” realize that the situation called for a straight line of participants with Petre in the middle? Lord knows there’s not much to see anyway, in A COCKTAIL PARTY SOCIAL EXPERIMENT, but poor planning exacerbates the dire situation.
Petre proved that he wasn’t even a good interviewer. When one contestant said he’d recently moved to New York City, Petre didn’t have the wherewithal to say “Oh, from where?” but moved on to an unrelated topic. Only after an audience member so wanted to know that she blatantly interrupted the proceedings by asking aloud did we learn that the man had been splitting his time between Vancouver and Los Angeles.
All the while that Petre and his guests talked (or didn’t), we heard played over the sound system non-stop smooth jazz – nay, NEVER-stopped smooth jazz. Although this was pleasant music from the Great American Song Book, the jazz and chatter were at odds with each other; one or the other should walk the plank. Here’s a vote for eliminating Petre and his volunteers and letting the audience hear the far more entertaining music.
Granted, just sitting there listening to recorded music would be dull. Still, it wouldn’t be as dull as A COCKTAIL PARTY SOCIAL EXPERIMENT, a test that will test you. And if that isn’t warning enough, be apprised that you’ll be sitting for two hours on hard bare-bones folding chairs.
It’s the show that should fold.