I began to attend Philadelphia theater in earnest about a decade ago, in my early/mid-20s. More often than not, my companion and I would be the youngest people in an audience comprised mostly of gray-haired, well-dressed white couples.
Today, in my mid-30s, I feel less of a demographic anomaly, my increasingly salted salt-and-pepper hair blending into the aging crowd. But just as attending an indie rock show at the TLA can make me feel decidedly old, certain theater crowds still make me feel unreasonably young.
Such was the case this weekend at a Lantern Theatre performance of Vigil by Morris Panych. It wasn't that the audience was particularly superannuated—several youngish couples dotted the sea of middle-aged theatergoers. But the dryly comic subject matter, which struck me as hilariously dark, fell flat on the older patrons around me.
Vigil concerns a self-centered and tactless banker named Kemp (Leonard C. Haas), who is summoned to the deathbed of his Aunt Grace, whom he hasn't seen in decades. "Sorry I haven't visited you in 30 years," he tells her. "I was busy." Unfortunately for Kemp, Grace (Ceal Phelan) clings stubbornly to her uneventful life ("Going to the bathroom and eating butterscotch pudding," as he puts it). Kemp bemoans her survival instinct, callously reading How to Grieve by her bedside while dictating her obituary.
Better for the Fringe?
Vigil is quickly paced, with an abundance of droll one-liners ("Why are you putting on makeup? Why don't you let the mortician do that?"), absurd monologues (on cross-dressing, religious guilt and a disillusioned magician father), and even farcical slapstick. It won critical acclaim from Vancouver to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And perhaps it would be better received at Philadelphia's own Fringe, where audiences are generally younger in age and more comically inclined.
Of course, humor is subjective. What's hilarious to one person can be distatseful to another. When a play is advertised as "darkly funny," I often discover that means "not funny" to many people. To judge from the way I was laughing amid a sea of otherwise stolid audience faces, Panych's naughty humor— laughter at the expense of the old— apparently tickles me more than it grabs my elders.
Leonard Haas, in any case, is on a good run, after a humorously bumbling turn as the father in Simpatico Theatre's underrated recent production of Evie's Waltz. Almost every line of Vigil is his, and director Peter DeLaurier has summoned an excellent performance.
Phelan reacts to Haas's jokes with a stunning range of expressions, communicating her bemusement or disagreement with subtle glances. (Peculiarly for a play with so little dialogue, the verbal interactions between the two actors are some of its weakest points, with several mistimed back-and-forths in the performance I attended.)
The Parisian solution
When I was in my 20s, my regular theater companion was a French live-in girlfriend, who criticized the age of Philadelphia theater audiences. Paris theaters, she noted, offer five-euro tickets ($7) to all buyers under age 25. I can't help wondering: What are Philadelphia theaters doing to develop tomorrow's audiences? (My own love of theater, aroused by annual holiday pantomimes, was cemented when I saw a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company at age of 11.)
As long as the median age of Philadelphia theatergoers remains high, theaters will be discouraged from presenting fare that would appeal to younger-minded viewers. That was what so worrying about being the most amused person in the Lantern's surprisingly sparse audience.
To be sure, Vigil lacks profundity, and the one major (well-signposted) plot twist fails to survive scrutiny, but it's the sort of wickedly entertaining fare of which I'd like to see more.
Happily, Philadelphia now enjoys an abundance of independent companies willing to take risks, shunning subscribers to put on shows that will appeal to new audiences. That's where I'll have to look for more cutting-edge shows, and jokes about old people, in what little time remains before I become one myself.♦
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