My favorite theatrical experiences are the ones that make me fall in love with the art form all over again, and last weekend, I had three such experiences: seeing People, Places & Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse, The Band’s Visit on Broadway, and Tiny Beautiful Things at the Public Theater.
I started my New York weekend as I always do: with a bus ride. After dropping my overnight bag at a Midtown hotel, I took the subway across the river to Brooklyn and met up with my friend Taylor (who I worked with at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer) for brunch. We opted for Vinegar Hill House, a cozy gem on a quiet street in Dumbo.
We both ordered a sourdough pancake with a side of fried potatoes, and I think I speak for both of us when I say they were both delicious and satisfying. Taylor and I developed an affinity for pancakes after we discovered a mom-and-pop breakfast spot in Vermont that serves fluffy 14-inch pancakes, so we have high pancake standards. But Vinegar Hill House’s pancakes are up there with the best.
After taking in the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline, I said goodbye to Taylor and popped over to St. Ann’s Warehouse for a matinee of People, Places & Things. I’ll be honest: I found out about the play through Ben Platt’s Instagram, and his recommendation was one of the main reasons I purchased a ticket. I was not disappointed.
The play, written by Duncan Macmillan, follows a woman who seeks treatment for addiction. The audience is catapulted into her experiences, which are filled with moments that will shock you, ones that will make you cry, and others that will make you question reality. While Denise Gough, who plays the lead character, goes through a remarkable transformation, the entire ensemble is breathtaking and contributes to the rollercoaster that is People, Places & Things.
The set design by Bunny Christie places the audience on two sides of the stage, so that each section faces the other. This adds a new dimension to “willing suspension of disbelief” and adds an element to the raw exposure of the lead character’s struggles. Her struggles are gritty and unflinchingly genuine–so much so it’s, ironically, sobering to see them come to life. The piece is unafraid to surprise you and will take you to theatrical levels you didn’t know existed. I left the theatre stunned and teary-eyed.
Afterwards, I took a breather back in the hotel room as dusk fell. Then, I went to Dig Inn with some friends for a quick dinner before the evening performance of The Band’s Visit. My friends Adeline and Tony rushed tickets for me and my other friend, Sloane, that morning, so I had a front row seat.
While I’d heard buzz about The Band’s Visit since its off-Broadway debut last season, I must admit I knew very little about it beyond the facts that it was about a band, and Katrina Lenk was in it. I’m glad I went in blind because I was blown away. It was quiet, unassuming, and not only allowed but also encouraged the audience to breathe. On the surface, the plot is simple (an Egyptian band must stay overnight in a little town in Israel due to a language-based miscommunication), but the silences and subtexts speak volumes.
The Band’s Visit is a musical about being human. It’s about what gets left unsaid, and what is instead shared through song. It’s about how music has the power to unite us through unimaginable differences and difficulties. It’s about waiting, and hope. It’s about love, and how a brief encounter with a stranger has the power to change your life.
The humor has a certain je ne sais quoi that hit me right in my soul. But its tender moments–specifically the final song, “Answer Me”–hit me even harder. (The pinnacle moment of the song, when the cast fills the stage and the harmonies swell, is one of the most beautiful moments on stage this Broadway season.)
After the show, my friends and I visited the stage door of the Barrymore Theatre to greet the cast and thank them for their touching performances. Everyone was sweet and genuine, and we could tell they are truly passionate about the story they tell each night.
On Sunday morning, I woke early and met up with my friend Diane for a tasty brunch at the Blue Dog in Hell’s Kitchen. I ordered a pumpkin spice French toast that was surprising and so seasonally perfect, while Diane opted for classic avocado toast.
I had some time to kill before my matinee, so I skipped the subway and walked downtown to the Public Theater. Along the way, I passed a Christmas village in Union Square and realized the Strand Book Store was just around the block from the Public, so I stopped by to check out the book selection. They have 18 miles of books at the Strand (which translates to roughly 2.5 million books spread out over three floors and an outdoor section). Needless to say, I was in bookworm heaven. I couldn’t help but purchase two books–Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.
Then, I went to the Public, which has such a welcoming atmosphere fueled by its rich history of theatrical excellence. I settled in for my matinee of Tiny Beautiful Things (a 90-minute 1pm matinee–score!) and had no idea what to expect. I’d read brief positive reviews on Twitter, but once again, went in largely blind.
The play is based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, who was the writer behind the advice column “Dear Sugar” for a number of years. It’s constructed as a sort of compilation of “Dear Sugar” letters, as performed by the magnificent ensemble to Nia Vardalos, who plays Sugar (and also adapted the novel for the stage).
The story ebbs and flows with humor and heartbreak, exploring the ways in which our diverse personal experiences can help one another grow, truly finding the universal in the specific. You will cry often and you will cry when you least expect to. Strayed’s wisdom is timeless and will help you examine your life through a new lens.
My weekend ended with a quick chat with my friend Kayla at the bus stop before I boarded the bus back home. Even though I had three hours to ruminate about my experiences on the ride, I slept instead.
Now that I have had time to reflect, it made me all the more grateful for this weekend. There’s nothing quite like the healing power of theatre, the catharsis you experience sitting in a dark room, surrounded by strangers who are filled with laughter, or tears, or both, because of the magic happening on stage. And there’s nothing quite like watching other strangers on that stage explore deep human truths that remind you that you’re not as alone as you thought you were.
But, sometimes you’re also lucky enough to be seated with friends among the audience. And sometimes you’re lucky enough to know some of the actors portraying these truths. And your experience grows all the richer when you share the delight of really brilliant theatre with those you love, growing closer through the sheer notion that you had the same experience, the notion that you grew together, and the notion that, whether or not it was ever articulated, you now understand one another just a bit better than you had before.
What are some of your favorite theatrical experiences?
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