Did I Watch the Future of Live Theater Last Night?

Stuart Emmrich

On Monday night, I got a text from a friend, just before 8, reminding me that we had a theater date. We were both going to watch, from the safe social distance of our own apartments, a livestreaming production of Terence McNally’s 1991 play Lips Together, Teeth Apart starring Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ari Graynor.

And sure enough, after I logged onto Broadway.com (and donated $50 to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund), a watercolor of four adults lounging on the deck of a beach house popped up on my screen. One was reading a newspaper, one sitting on the edge of the pool, one painting at her easel, and the fourth in a vibrant bathrobe, looking ready to make Bloody Marys, and this was followed by a title card and then the faces of the four actors, each in his or her own square Skype box.

There was no set. No costumes. No background music or mood lighting. Just four people sitting in their own homes, dressed casually, positioned in front of their computers (and one or two better lit than the others), playing two married couples spending the July 4 weekend at the Fire Island home of the deceased brother of one of them, a casualty of the AIDS crisis.

And it was great.

The actors, through the alchemy of imagination and skill, quickly created the illusion that they were all in the same room together, soaking up the sun, waving to the neighbors. As the sounds of Maria Callas drifted over, they watched tanned young men go by in Speedos and sparred with each other over suspected infidelity and family grievances.

But perhaps the best part was what it demanded of the audience. We too had to imagine the set: the house, the beach, the outdoor shower (which has its comic moment, conveyed solely by dialogue), the tray of cocktail glasses shattering to the ground, the sudden fistfight that burst out between the characters played by Ferguson and Quinto. (There were occasional voiceovers by an unseen narrator, filling in some of the blanks.) In addition to marveling how convincingly the actors conveyed the impression that they were all in the same room together, I found myself listening even more intently to the dialogue than I would have in the theater. With no visual clues to tip you off to the action, the words were everything, and they grew in power as the evening progressed. I felt completely transported.

Even the occasional glitches seemed to have a deeper meaning. Graynor seemed to go slightly out of frame during a couple of scenes. Had she not played close enough attention to the angle of her laptop? Or was this skewed view somehow emblematic of the flightiness of her character, highly dramatic and of apparently limited talent?

And then there was intermission. Instead of racing off to the bathroom before the line got too long or wondering yet again if I should pay too much money for a glass of mediocre, warm white wine, I watched funny, informative, and gossipy taped interviews with Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski—both members (along with Swoosie Kurtz and Anthony Heald) of the original cast—and poured another glass of the pinot grigio chilling in the refrigerator. I texted my friend:

*Me: I’m liking this!

Her: Zachary is one good actor.

Me: I thought you must have loved that scene where one of the other characters yelled at Zachary for reading the newspaper over breakfast.

Her: I laughed out loud.

Me: But killing myself that I never saw the original cast. Nathan Lane! Christine Baranski! Swoosie Kurtz!

Her: Can you imagine?*

Then it was back to our couches for Act II.

This performance, which was directed by Trip Cullman and produced by Broadway.com with Eric Kuhn and Justin Mikita, and which raised more than $75,000, is one of several efforts to livestream theater as a way to raise funds to help out members of the theater community, many of whom don’t know when they will ever work in live theater again. A new weekly series, called Plays in the House, is livestreaming onetime readings of classic Broadway plays, some featuring members of the original casts. The first performance was of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles.

No doubt it was not a coincidence that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a group born amid one pandemic, would choose to stage this specific play as we grapple—frightened and confused—with yet another 30 years later.

“I think these are terrible times to be a parent in,” says one character to another. “I think these are terrible times to be anything in,” the other character responds.

The last time I was in a Broadway theater was in January, seeing one of the final performances of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. This spring I was looking forward to seeing the musicals Six and Caroline...or Change, the revival of How I Learned to Drive, and the return of The Lehman Trilogy.

Now, I don’t know when I will go to a Broadway theater—or when audiences, in general, will feel safe being inside one, jammed up against each other in cramped seats or snaking around the lounge to get inside the bathrooms. Not exactly the platonic ideal of social distancing.

But if this livestreamed, magical performance of Lips Together, Teeth Apart, is a glimpse of what the future of theater looks like—at least for now—then count me in.

Originally Appeared on Vogue