On the stage in front of us, a Moscow theater company was performing Tolstoy. It was opening night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, and Mikhail Baryshnikov was there in the audience, house left at the end of my row, to see Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko’s “Family Happiness.” Also in the audience, directly behind me on the aisle, was a man about 50 years too old to be behaving the way he was: like a small child in the backseat of a car, ferociously guarding his territory from a sibling who insists on encroaching. He did not, at any point, actually whine, “Mom, he’s touching me!” But that was the effect as the American loudly, repeatedly lectured the quiet Russian man next to him not to let his coat touch him, not to sit with his knees apart, not to move whatsoever because he. Could. Feel. Every. Single. Vibration!
Granted, the theater has upholstered bench seats, sans armrests, and each holds two people. They had the misfortune to be sharing one, and their misfortune spread to the people around them as the cranky man’s admonitions escalated from whispers to hisses to what felt, mid-performance, like a not particularly indoor voice. I wondered if the actors could hear him.
At intermission, he started in again, and I would not have been surprised if a brawl had broken out. I once saw a fistfight erupt at an art-house screening of “Far From Heaven,” so stranger things have happened. I turned around. “People can hear you, you know,” I said. The man was a pulsating raw nerve. “You don’t have to get involved!” he nearly shouted at me. I answered softly, on the theory that lowering my volume might be contagious. “Are you going to be quiet this time?” I asked. “I’ll be quiet if I’m comfortable,” he sniped, not responding to the auditory cue.
The mention of his comfort reminded me of an idea that had crossed my mind during Act 1. “Would you like to switch seats?” I asked, gesturing to show I meant to offer him mine. “Seriously,” I said. He hesitated — was this a trap? — so I talked up the size of my seatmate, who’d gone out to the lobby. “This woman is small,” I told him. I felt guilty about sticking her with him; if I spoke Russian, I’d have apologized to her when she came back. But she really was tiny, and I figured we’d all have a better chance of a quiet Act 2 if we got the angry man into a new seat. “OK,” he said, granting me a favor. “If it will make you happy.” “Sure,” I said.
My new seatmate was lovely — polite, grateful, and not all that big himself. In this country for 30 years, he said he was a fan of the late director Piotr Fomenko’s genius; something in the play, he said, touched the Russian soul. But he couldn’t resist a dig as the American sat down in front of us. “Apparently he is used to Yan-kee Stadium,” he said in his Russian accent. The woman next to the angry man huddled so close to her friend that she was barely sharing the bench with him at all. There was room for a whole person between them. This evidently pleased the American, as we heard not a peep out of him for the rest of the performance.
When it was over, he left during the long applause, freeing my seatmate to talk about him. “Even the baseball fan enjoyed it,” he said. I laughed. “Some people are like that,” he added kindly. “They can’t bear to be touched. But it is good that he came.” Then he articulated the hope we so often have about the healing power of art, communally experienced. “Maybe,” he said, “some of it will sink in.”