NEW YORK, N.Y. – There are plenty of cocktail and wine options available at Broadway theatres during intermission. But these days, it might be wiser to order a strong cup of coffee instead.
Three plays that opened this spring require an uncommon amount of attention, despite several breaks. Two parts of “Angels in America” clock in at a total of eight hours, the two parts of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” are more than a combined five hours and the revival of “The Iceman Cometh” is just under four hours.
“I love to go to the theatre when it’s 90 minutes, no intermission,” admits Bill Irwin, who is starring in “Iceman” with Denzel Washington. “I love that kind of piece. But there is a certain need for narrative that really is only fulfilled over a longer period of time.”
Long plays have been around since the Greeks, but these days, in the age of instant gratification where attention spans are said to be as short as a tweet, a three-hour play is a big ask. Having three “event” works land at one time is unusual.
Last year at this time, the longest play was the Tony-winning “Oslo,” which clocked in at 2 hours, 55 minutes. One of its Tony rivals — “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — actually was a very economical 90 minutes.
Director George C. Wolfe certainly knows his way around long stage works. He was the original director of “Angels in America” when it made its Broadway debut in 1993. Now he’s helming “Iceman” and thinks good works can draw people in, regardless of length.
“If it’s a story where people can find themselves inside of, it isn’t a job. It’s not broccoli,” he said. “It’s not, ‘This is good for you so endure it.’ If you can create work and people find themselves inside of it then I think they make that investment.”
Broadway theatregoers of 50 and 60 years ago had to sit still much longer. Productions of William Shakespeare, unless they’re heavily cut or “Macbeth,” the Bard’s shortest play, rarely run less than three hours.
Plays by George Bernard Shaw — especially his mammoth “Man and Superman” — run long, as do those by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. O’Neill’s lengthy dramas include the five-hour “Mourning Becomes Electra” and the nine-act “Strange Interlude.”
“Most plays of a certain length need to be of that length. They don’t do it glibly,” says Colm Meaney, who has logged plenty of time onstage in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “Moon for the Misbegotten.” He’s returned this spring for “Iceman.”
“Not many people remember when there were intermissions in movies. Movies were three and four hours long,” he adds. “Nowadays we think three of four hours is very long but many years ago people considered that a normal evening’s entertainment.”
Other plays that require an investment include the nine one-act plays that make up “The Kentucky Cycle,” Robert Schenkkan’s tale of 200 treacherous years of American history. And “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” clocks in at nearly eight hours.
James McArdle, currently starring in the “Angels in America” revival, has become something of a long-play specialist, having starred in Britain in all-day marathons of “The James Plays” — about three generations of Stewart kings — and the nine-hour-long “Young Chekhov” trilogy.
These days he looks out into the seats of the Neil Simon Theatre and sees “Angels” audience members bonding with strangers around them over a shared experience, like summer campers.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘We’ll keep in touch,’ like friends you meet on holiday. ‘We’ll always have the Neil Simon’ — that’s what they say,” McArdle said. “I think there’s a thirst for that kind of theatre, that kind of event theatre.”
It’s tempting to compare the marathon plays on Broadway to the rise of binge watching at home but McArdle doesn’t agree. Binge culture is isolated and he loves the community of theatre.
“It’s a shared experience in a room with 1,600 people and I think that is part of the appeal,” he said. “I think there’s nothing more cathartic for people to sit through this expansive day.”
Bill Irwin, who also stars in “Iceman Cometh,” said he and his cast anticipated seeing empty seats by Act 3 or Act 4 as patrons slowly gave up but so far he’s delighted to find he hasn’t. “Maybe people are moving up and filling them but it doesn’t feel like people are calling it a night,” he said.
He recently spied a group of tourists in the front row and told co-star Meaney, “They won’t last long.” Both were surprised to find “they were at the curtain call some few hours later.”
Their co-star David Morse said it may be more than a coincidence that all three long plays show up at a time when much of entertainment is consumed in tiny bursts on small screens.
“I think what we’re thirsty for is great experiences,” he said. “When people are taking part in a great experience, the length kind of goes out the window a little bit because your attention isn’t on that. Your attention is happening in front of you.”
For his part, Meaney isn’t sure all long plays need to be that taxing. He took his youngest daughter to see “Harry Potter” and wasn’t afraid of throwing it some shade.
“It’s wonderful theatricality and wonderful stagecraft, but I’m not sure there’s anything really deep there to keep you in your seat for eight hours or whatever,” he said.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits