Tuesday evening’s performance of “Shows for Days,” had a very clear message and it wasn’t the virtues of an adolescence spent in Community Theater, which was what the show was about. Upon entering the subterranean Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, before the ticket is torn, you’re greeted with a stand-alone sign requesting that patrons turn off their electronic devices. Once sat, a loose-leaf page tumbles from the playbill, imploring audience members to silence their handheld machines, please. The theater fills and ushers walk up and down the aisle, reminding you to flip your damn phone to off. The lights go down and Patti LuPone’s voice tells you, one last time, that we’re all in this together – so there better not be any fucking texting during the performance (not her words exactly, but the fourth reminder inevitably has a sense of impatience).
Several days after generating a wave of publicity for confiscating an audience member’s cell phone during a performance (which I wholly support), the idea of manners hovered over “Shows for Days” like a nervous ghost. I noticed seat neighbors checking their phones multiple times to make sure they were silent. Next to me, a woman admitted that she secretly hoped for a technological disruption just to see LuPone lose it.
The play, by Douglas Carter Beane, both skewers and honors the dreams and ambitions of small-town theater folk, through the lens of a teen discovering his inner theater queen (Michael Urie). It was, at times, a play about bad manners, during which everyone watching was on their best behavior. All the signs, pamphlets, announcements and personal appeals felt comically much, but it’s true: these days, it’s impossible to escape the blue screen, whether in a movie theater or a live performance. “Shows for Days” is a nostalgic look at a time and place where being in the theater was enough, where we welcomed the opportunity to escape the world for a couple of hours rather than finding ways to stay tethered to it. If theater means anything these days, maybe it’s the effort to reclaim that escape. In which case, the show’s message was received.