Friday, May 17, 2013

The Phone Smash Heard Round the Net

Phillipa Soo as Natasha in
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Credit: Chad Batka
It was the second act of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy's pop-opera environmental adaption of a section of War and Peace, performed in a restaurant setting near the West Side Highway after a successful run at Ars Nova. Natasha had just intensely confronted her cousin Sonya with the news that she plans to elope with Anatole Kuragin. Sonya is about to deliver her big ballad about how much she loves Natasha and will never allow her to make such a fool of herself. I hear shuffling behind me and a woman from the audience angrily stomps across the playing area--there's no other way to get out--and flings open the exit door right by where Sonya is about to deliver her song. The woman turns and points dramatically in the direction where she was sitting and the door closes. The show continues (I'll post my review later) and I do not find out until the next day what happened.

Gawker first reported that National Review columnist Kevin Williamson was sitting next to the woman and she was texting on her I-phone. Williamson later reports in his own column that during the first act, this woman and her party of friends were talking loudly and texting, generally behaving badly. Williamson's date asked the management to do something about it during intermission and was assured it would be handled. But nothing changed, they were still disruptive. Williamson asked the woman to turn off her distracting phone (I know what that's like, having had to endure 20 minutes of it during a screening of Lincoln). She refused. He sarcastically asked if she had a special exemption from the citywide rule about turning off your cell phone during performances. She told him to mind his own business. That did it! Williamson grabbed the phone from the woman and tossed it away.

She slapped him and did her indignant walk out. Shortly thereafter, Williamson was asked by a security guard to step into the lobby for a few words. He did and was told the woman was furious and considering legal action. The security detail wanted him to stay, for what reason we don't know, but he asked if they were the police and if he was under arrest. If not, he was leaving, which he did. No word if the phone was damaged or if that woman is pressing charges.

The next day the news spread like the proverbial wildfire on the Internet. Several major critics and theater reporters were in the audience, including me, because it was the night before opening so there was a lot of coverage. Reaction on the net tended to go in favor of Williamson who has been hailed as a sort of folk hero for striking back at the entitled, limited-attention-span playgoers who can't be without their alternative media for the two hours of a play or movie. There has been a backlash from those who say he overreacted and violated this woman's property rights by seizing her phone. The immersive environment of Natasha, Pierre is not like a regular theater where he could have summoned an usher and reported her infraction. The patrons are crowded together at restaurant tables and there are no aisles to exit or go up during the performance. Let me note that once the irate texter left, the show went on without a hitch, Sonia (Brittain Ashford) delivered her big wonderful number and I burst into tears at the final scene between Pierre (Malloy) and Natasha (Phillipa Soo who should have gotten a Drama Desk and Outer Critics nomination, but maybe she'll get an Obie).

In a court of law, Williamson would probably be liable for any damage done to the phone. But would the woman be charged with assault for slapping him? Several bloggers have stated Williamson was in the wrong, but I can understand his frustration. I don't know what I would have done in a similar situation where there was no recourse. As stated no ushers or serving staff were present or readily accessible. Should she just have been allowed to continue texting? Hopefully, she will learn a lesson, but I doubt it. We know the identity of the phone-tosser, but not of the owner of the offending phone. I wonder if she is even aware that she has sparked an internet storm and what she thinks of it. Probably that she has every right to talk, text, and carry on wherever and whenever she wants. Who is this woman? I'd love to find out and have her debate Williamson on an episode of Judge Judy or even Theater Talk on proper theater etiquette.

Let me know what you think.

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