I like living near BAM. On Sunday afternoon walks, I sometimes pass the Opera House or Harvey Theater when the stage doors are open, giving me a peek backstage during load-in or load-out. I relish any glimpse behind the curtain, at the great wide spaces that remind me of a bare factory floor, a theatrical Vehicle Assembly Building where absolutely anything can be created. Seen from Hanson Place, the backstage of the Opera House is cavernous, and to watch a few dozen stagehands hustle crate after crate off of two or three or four semi-trailers is to be awed by the work that goes into filling that stage. "We've got a budget," says BAM, "and we're going to use it."
There's great promise in a load-in. Watching load-out can be bittersweet, or just plain heartbreaking, as with the day I saw Santo Loquasto's beautiful scenery for The Master Builder tossed into a dumpster on Ashland, the steeple that figures in the play's climax poking out of a pile of garbage. But that's theater. When a run is finished, it's over—the scenery discarded or repurposed, the space adapted for some other story. It's a cycle of renewal, and even when it's bittersweet, it is a happy thing.
This is different from some of the other bits of entertainment with which I fill my days. When I passed BAM yesterday, I was on my way home from the last Mets game of the season, wallowing in the particular anguish that comes with the close of the regular season. Baseball is a simple pleasure, endlessly available from April through October, but like all seasonal joys, we lose it suddenly and violently. The last day of the regular season is painful in the way that summer's last beach day, trip to the park, or icy mint julep can be. They are simple pleasures, but the close of the season is a reminder that one day we will get our last sunburn, fly our last kite, and watch our last ballgame. Remembering that is no fun at all.
Theater is not a simple pleasure. It is maddening, overpriced, doomed and pretentious. But it also offers something rare—that sense of panic that comes when a good play is ending, as we try to keep our eyes wide open, to take in as much of the scene as possible, knowing that we will never be able to see it again. (I plan to die the same way.) That straining desperation is a form of the sublime, and the sublime is nothing to sneeze at.
On a sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, I passed the Opera House and saw a truck full of what appeared to be pink Lincoln Logs. "Ooh," I thought. "That must be for Anna Nicole ." I'd been waiting for the well-reviewed British opera to land in New York for over a year, and the sight of all that pink, sturdy-looking wood took my anticipation up another notch. "What could it be?" I wondered. "Does it all fit together to make a pink, uncomfortably ribbed sofa?" (That this was my best guess shows that I don't have much of a nose for set design.)
When the curtain rose on the performance of Anna I saw, it turned out that the Lincoln Logs formed the backdrop—a kind of pink log cabin wall meant to establish Anna's humble origins. And though the opera disappointed me bitterly—in the way that simpler pleasures never can—I'm glad I got to experience those months of anticipation, and the thrill I felt at seeing the set stacked up outside. I didn't know what it was, but I knew those logs were the raw ingredients for something magical. That's a cool thing to feel sure of, even when you turn out wrong.
Yesterday, as I tried to hold on to the fading flavor of another season of meaningless baseball, I saw Anna being dismantled. What had come in with such promise was being taken away in disappointment. The logs had reverted to logs. After just a handful of performances, the show was over, and there could be no promise of rebirth. The Opera House stage will be filled again, but the City Opera is likely on its way out. That it died a shell of itself—staging an abbreviated season of half-baked British opera, begging on Kickstarter and performing far from its original home—does not make this collapse any more sad.
I was musing on the metaphorical death of summer, of baseball, of the pathetic Mets and their pathetic 2013, when I passed a real death on Hanson Place, and saw the body being dragged to the curb.