Monday, February 4, 2008

Gave my regards to Broadway

So why did I go to New York City the other week? Got an offer I couldn't refuse. My old friend Seth Traxler, an investor in a number of Broadway shows this season, generously invited me to join him at the opening night of David Mamet's much-anticipated new political comedy, November. Who was I to say no?

Seth and I flew out together and grabbed lunch at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, a Manhattan landmark that had escaped my notice. Established in 1913, the same year as the current Grand Central Terminal (as the train station is officially known), the subterranean seafood spot is familiar to many as the backdrop for the current opening credits of Saturday Night Live. In the words of Hank Kingsley, the Oyster Bar isn't from the old school, it's from the school they tore down to build the old school.

Checking into the Parker Meridien in midtown Manhattan, I was dimly aware of an older guy crowding me at the hotel reception counter. He was wearing one of those "Choppers" shirts, either Orange County Choppers or West Coast Choppers (are these the same thing? or choppers rivals? I neither know nor care enough to Google it). The guy was impatiently leaning over my shoulder, but I was in a great mood and it didn't bother me.

A few minutes later, as I got into the elevator, some girl turned to me and said, "Did you see who that was behind you? The dad from that motorcycle show on TV! His kid was there too!" Dim awareness would also describe my general sense that there's some kind of choppers-related cable television show I've never seen (I have never typed the word "choppers" so many times in my life) wherein a father and son ride motorcycles, or customize them or vote them off an island.

I was struck by the contrast between how big a deal the Choppers family was to this girl, and how meaningless they were to me. Then again, if New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz had walked by, I would have taken note and the girl likely wouldn't have. There's someone out there for everyone to admire, and in today's oversaturated world, more people than ever are meaningful to tiny slices of the population. Speaking of which, if you got the Hank Kingsley reference above, nice.

The random brush with fame (of a sort, anyway) foreshadowed the evening ahead of us. Sure, I would have preferred to cross paths with supermodel Niki Taylor, also staying at our hotel, but the Choppers guy did suffice. For the record, I generally try to avoid name-dropping, but to tell the story of a big Broadway opening night, you have to break a few eggs, so please indulge me.

Our buddy Matt Goldberg took the train down from Boston to join Seth and me for the show. After an obligatory bite to eat at the Parker Meridien's semi-secret lobby Burger Joint, we headed down to Broadway for the early 6:45 curtain. We got there well in advance but the crowd was already growing as rain fell. I'd expected a showbiz kind of night, and sure enough, as I hopped out of our cab, the first person I saw was one of my favorite character actors, Ron Rifkin, waiting under an umbrella.

In front of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, photographers camped behind barricades, leaving little room on the sidewalk for the throng of showgoers to maneuver. We managed to find Matt's friend, recent New Yorker interviewee David Danzig, and enter the theater.

Seth's brother Steve Traxler, a major Broadway player, is one of the producers of the show. While they greeted their other guests, and Matt and Dave went to find their seats, I loitered in the back of the house to take in some opening-night hoopla.

The well-dressed crowd of suave sophisticates and beautiful women made for good people-watching. Every few minutes an actor (Tom Wopat, Mariska Hargitay) or media pundit (Rita Cosby, Joy Behar) would trigger a flashbulb explosion in front of the theater. Neil Simon got such a greeting, then a warm welcome from several theater staffers; the biggest fireworks display went to Matthew Broderick and Jerry Seinfeld, who arrived together. I recognized an actor from my favorite new show, Mad Men, and congratulated him on the show's recent renewal for a second season.

Not to get too Us Weekly on you, but the other industry types in the crowd included Sidney Lumet, Eric Bogosian, Joel Grey, Anthony Edwards, Molly Ringwald, Christine Ebersole, Josh Lucas, Lynn Redgrave, Tracy Letts, Stephanie March, Richard Kline, Kelli O'Hara and Marc Shaiman.

Soon enough it was curtain time, so I joined Seth in what turned out to be rock-star seats in the fourth row, with Seinfeld and Broderick behind us in row 5 and Neil Simon in row 6. Yes, I too was struck by the ridiculousness of my sitting there. Steve and his longtime girlfriend, the gracious Carrie Lannon, sat a few seats over from us.

November stars Nathan Lane as an incompetent U.S. president who's made a mockery of his first term (sound familiar?) and is about to get slaughtered in his reëlection bid (this is where art and life sadly diverge). Dylan Baker plays his faithful right-hand man and Laurie Metcalf his ace speechwriter. It's Mamet's first new Broadway show in many years, as he's been doing movie work and shepherding the CBS television series The Unit, though Steve did produce (and win a Tony for) the recent all-star Glengarry Glen Ross revival. The director of that production, Joe Mantello, is back for this one.

Mamet comes out firing with several minutes of dead-on jokes skewering the current presidential administration. Opening with populist shots across the bow is a wise move, dispensing the necessary medicine early and settling the crowd into their seats. From there, the door is wide open for Mamet to bang away at hot topics in national politics (warmongering, gay marriage, controversial pardons, lobbyist cash), which he does gleefully. Although November invokes recent missteps by the White House, it also airs some Clinton-era laundry. Like Mamet's Wag the Dog, it's not so much a partisan attack as a takedown of the politics of cynicism.

I liked the show. Most of it works and all of it held my interest. It's definitely a Mamet play, coarse and jaded like Glengarry and American Buffalo, but lighter and broader, à la State and Main. The one-liners fly fast and furious, running the gamut from pithy to wacky. Nathan Lane sells the material with his usual glib gusto, with the intelligent Dylan Baker well cast as his more grounded foil. Designer Scott Pask's faithfully rendered Oval Office set is a stately backdrop for all the hijinks.

I also got a kick out of watching a new comedy with Jerry Seinfeld and Matthew Broderick sitting right behind me. With Seinfeld's barking laugh and Broderick's soft chuckle in my ear, I could compare the jokes that made them laugh out loud with the jokes I liked the best.

It felt like a trip through modern Broadway history: watching the premiere of a new Mamet show, sitting between the two stars of the box-office smash The Producers, with B'way icon Neil Simon along for the ride. You may remember that Broderick's Tony-winning turn as Eugene Jerome in Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs kick-started his career. (Want more Six Degrees of Matthew Broderick? Simon wrote Broderick's movie debut, Max Dugan Returns; Broderick reprised the Eugene role in Simon's Biloxi Blues on stage and screen; he did voice work in Seinfeld's Bee Movie; his new movie with Dylan Baker just played at Sundance; and his wife appeared in Mamet's State and Main.)

When the show ended, the crowd roared its approval. Red, white and blue balloons fell from the ceiling as the cast took its curtain call, then returned for another. As we made our way to the exits, I helped a frantic woman try to find her missing umbrella. Not just any beautiful six-foot blonde, she turned out to be the actress Kristen Johnston, best known from the NBC series 3rd Rock from the Sun, but with stage roots at Mamet's Atlantic Theater Company.

What had already been a great night out only got better as we walked a few blocks through the rain to the after-party at the nearby restaurant Bond 45. Much of the audience headed there too. Someone explained to me that most or all of the tickets to a Broadway opening-night performance are comps; with an audience of invited guests, it's pretty much an industry function and celebratory occasion. Then, starting on day two, it's all about selling tickets.

Bond 45 has a Broadway pedigree of its own, as the building was once the Hammerstein Theater and the Ziegfeld Follies began on its roof. As the current name implies, it later housed the Bond clothing store on 45th Street, which famously offered two pairs of pants with every suit. These days it's a bustling theater district restaurant, a good choice for an opening-night celebration.

By the time we got there, a long line had formed in front of the place. As if he hadn't done enough already, Steve magically whisked us out of the rain and into the party through a side door. The front of the place was laid out as a runway where the newly reassembled photographers could shoot the stars as they entered. "Come on, guys, where's the love?" my friends and I joked as our entrance was roundly ignored.

It will come as little surprise that the party was a blast. The room exuded old-time New York, the Brooks Atkinson era, ideal for a Broadway opening night. Its open bars were pouring fast as excellent food passed on trays through a wall-to-wall capacity crowd. Beyond the chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones, we now had the show to talk about, and throughout the evening, word spread as positive newspaper reviews in early editions hit the streets (the critics having attended previews).

Because each guest had a specific reason for being there, everyone had a story to tell. The festive mood lent itself to casual chitchat, so just saying hello to people usually led somewhere interesting. For example, the box office manager told us about the last-minute ticket crunch in the days before the premiere. The behind-the-scenes drama inherent in her job fascinated me, but she seemed relieved to be out of the woods. I also got a kick out of the 20-year manager of the Barrymore Theatre, a walking fountain of Broadway anecdotes who dropped some pearls about working with Harold Pinter.

Two women and I kept crossing paths all night, joking around briefly each time. Finally, toward the end of the night, Matt and I spoke with them. One turned out to be David Mamet's personal assistant for the last few years, in from Los Angeles for the premiere. Another guest, a friend of Steve and Carrie's whom I'd sat next to at the play, was a debonair Englishman who runs the Soho House, an exclusive NYC hotel. They're hoping to open one in Chicago in the next few years.

Familiar faces drifted by, a Victor Garber here and a cast member there. I hadn't spoken to Seinfeld or Broderick at the theater, but at the party I got to trade a few quips with them and actually managed to crack them up. Being guests at the same party and sharing a give-and-take was a more reciprocal, human experience than seeing them projected on a screen.

I also congratulated Dylan Baker, another of my favorite actors, whom I loved as Lt. Polson in Steven Bochco's Murder One when I was in law school. He's had an enviable career full of legitimate theater work, leading roles in independent movies such as Todd Solondz' Happiness, and character parts in mainstream blockbusters (he plays Peter Parker's college professor in the Spider-Man movies). I meant to ask him whether he was named after the golfer from The Great Gatsby, but I'm glad I forgot to, because the character was actually called Jordan Baker.

Some of the actors were of particular interest. Over dinner, for example, we'd talked about The Wire. Like so many people, Seth and Matt are huge fans, plus Matt's from Baltimore, so they relished chatting with Chris Bauer, who played the union head in Season 2. Elsewhere in quality cable, the Mad Men star I'd met, John Slattery, confirmed Seth's theory that our lunch spot, the Oyster Bar, was the inspiration for Slattery's oyster-eating scene with Jon Hamm from the memorable episode "Red in the Face." They'd filmed it at Musso and Frank, Hollywood's oldest restaurant, but he told Seth the Grand Central institution was the model.

Seth and Steve did a great job of making all their friends, clients, relatives and fellow investors feel welcome, and what a way to entertain. The Traxlers are seasoned investors, having backed many Broadway shows over the years, but it was the first opening-night experience for most of us who joined them. Not only did everyone enjoy the play, a worthy addition to the Mamet canon, but on its opening night on Broadway, and the after-party too? Come on; as a great New Yorker said, you cannot be serious. It was a thrill and a privilege to be along for the ride, and I know all the other guests felt the same way.

Eventually, as the party wound down, David bade us farewell and Seth, Matt and I made our way in the rain. Our evening ended as it had started, with the three of us grabbing a bite to eat in a beloved New York eatery. This time it was midnight matza ball soup, pickles, potato latkes and pastrami sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli, where we compared notes on a night to remember.

I hadn't imposed on any of the celebrities to take a snapshot with me. I did, however, get the photo I wanted most, the one I took with my friends.


Jenny Blair said...

" them off an island." hahaha.

Anonymous said...

Great post-- very jealous you got to see this.


Anonymous said...

Dang G. That's a lot of glitz. I didn't get any of the references, where does that leave me?

Ben said...

Jenny, apparently that's not what they do?

PJ, it should be running for a while. An NYC regular like yourself should get a chance to see it.

Rosario, I don't know anything about the likes of Stephanie March or Christine Ebersole either. I just know the big stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Matthew Broderick, and Matt Goldberg.