Area theater publicists know that one of my favorite questions before an opening night is “How long is the show?”
I like to be prepared about the running time so I can better plan my day around how late I’ll be working and what to expect.
I’m not sure what difference it really makes because it’s not like I’m going to be leaving before the show ends. (I’ve wanted to, sometimes, believe me.) But it has become something of a ritual, and I like some advance warning if the show is three hours long or runs less than 90 minutes with no intermission. Maybe I need an extra cup of coffee in advance, just in case.
I know I’m not alone thinking about this, because I am frequently asked by friends and readers about the length of certain shows. And more and more theaters now post running times for each act in the lobby for their patrons.
Asking about a play’s length could suggest some audience members are only sort of interested in the show, or aren’t sure they want to commit more than two hours of their time, or they got burned by a long play they didn’t like. Perhaps they worry that they won’t get their money’s worth if the show is only 90 minutes or less. More likely, they just want to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
Still others may just want to know how long they have to wait before they can take a bathroom break. Don’t laugh. Many years ago, the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre divided “Hello, Dolly!” into three acts to give their patrons a restroom break. The first act, as written, can run more than 100 minutes. (It didn’t matter that there was no dramatic reason to take a break at that point.)
I’ve been thinking about running times in theater a bit after seeing several longer-than-usual movies during the holidays. “The Hobbit,” “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” each of which ran more than two hours and 40 minutes. (Yes, I looked up the running times, to make sure we had time to make dinner and family appointments.)
But I wondered why people manage to sit through movies that are that long without any concern, but they start fidgeting if the first act of a play is more than an hour?
It may not actually have anything to do with the physical time. If you don’t like what your watching, it doesn’t really matter how long it is. It’s still too long.
“The Hobbit” was the longest of the three holiday movies I saw, but it could have been just 30 minutes and that would have been too much to me. (I’m going to try reading the book again so I don’t have to sit through the next two installments.)
It’s all about perception and enjoyment levels, and how we’re conditioned. Plays, like operas, used to last much longer than they do today, in part because audiences had nothing else to rush home to. There was no television or Internet. Live performances were the entertainment for an evening. The first act of a typical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical generally runs more than 90 minutes, longer than a lot of new plays today.
Plays have generally grown shorter in recent years, in part because playwrights include fewer actors in their scripts. Shows with fewer actors are cheaper to produce, and fewer characters often mean a shorter story.
There are always exceptions, of course, among contemporary writers, from Tony Kushner’s monumental “Angels in America” to Tracy Letts’ marvelous “August: Osage County.” Many August Wilson plays run close to three hours. All those plays, when they're done well, just breeze by. You’re not aware they’re as long as they actually are.
Even when I know how long the show is supposed to be, I realize I still look at my watch occasionally during a performance. More than one time check, and I know I’m not as involved as I’d like to be. Maybe that’s how I should start rating the shows I review. We can skip stars and go right to a timepiece.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.