Weekend Edition: On the town

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

One of the primal experiences — and joys — for New Yorkers is going to a Broadway play.

Of course the feelings drummed up by seeing actors embody characters invented by playwrights and authors can be just as moving in a play on Shelter Island. Broadway offers considerably more technical bells and whistles and the acting talent is a bit deeper.

A recent case in point is our attendance at a stirring performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” as unlikely a smash hit as has come along in years. Adapted from the 2003 novel of the same name, it takes us into the head of autistic 15-year-old Christopher. And what a head it is.

He is a mathematical genius but doesn’t like to be touched and can wig out at the drop of a hat. Ironically, because of his condition he needs to be looked after pretty intensely. His parents are severely tested and his mother basically bails out, leaving his stressed-out father to deal with a lot of behavioral dissonance every day.

Besides excellent performances by a bunch of medium- to small- to no-name actors, it is the set that is the headliner here. The stage is essentially a large black cube with all manner of black-and-white data and images frantically running continuously down the walls. You quickly figure out that the set is a visual depiction of Christopher’s rapidly firing brain. I usually look forward to intermission to unpack my legs from the too-small Broadway theater seats and take care of other business.

But I was so transfixed by the action in “Curious Incident” that I would have preferred it was presented to me in one manic shot.

The “incident” in question is the killing of a neighborhood dog (by pitchfork) that Christopher intensely investigates. He also goes on an unauthorized quest through the London mass transit system that throws him and everybody else for a loop. Does this sound like your typical Broadway hit? The answer comes at the end, with as loud and boisterous a standing ovation as I’ve ever heard.

The only downside to the Broadway play experience is the usual necessity to physically enter the Times Square region. Ask any Manhattanite: Times Square exists only to be avoided. The crowds are immense, making pedestrian navigation tiresome. And they all come from Iowa. The country needs Iowa and all the good things it produces. But enough with these roving bands of Iowans in the Theater District.

For “Incident” we changed our routine a bit. Typically we take the subway. This time we decided to walk from the domicile at East 78th Street to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at West 47th, giving us a natural route through snowy Central Park with a steady view south where two pencil-thin residential towers have revolutionized the skyline. You can’t take your eyes off the newer of the two (and many more are coming).

I cleverly used a very cautious estimate of how much time we needed to get to the theater. With about 40 minutes to kill and within several blocks of the theater, I piped up, how about getting a drink at Gallagher’s, a venerable steakhouse I used to occasionally visit during the bizarre time I worked as editorial director of a law firm across the street.

She saw through my timing maneuver instantly.

We sat at the dark, perfect bar next to a couple who affably chatted with a long white-aproned bartender.

They were Dino and Beth, I learned. They paid up and got ready to go just as we were doing the same. Are you going to a matinée, I asked. Yes, “Jersey Boys,” they answered cheerily. And we fell into some Broadway chit chat. I wondered but did not inquire if they hailed from Iowa.

Dino? Iowa? I would bet not.

We have seen the whole gamut of plays and musicals, from brooding, knotted performances of Eugene O’Neill tragedies by Brian Dennehy to a recent revival of “On the Town” with its terrific score by Leonard Bernstein.

But one of my personal favorites was the 1999 revival of “Kiss Me Kate,” music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Brian Stokes Mitchell won a Tony for his efforts. But a couple of scene-stealers were my and the crowd’s favorites. They play gangsters trying to get an I.O.U. paid up and at one point find themselves suddenly in the production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” (I know, it’s complicated.) They were hilarious.

Afterward, we and my brother and his wife stopped by Joe Allen, a popular hangout for actors and theater-goers. It was packed and we were standing at the end of the bar. My brother and I fell into animated conversation about the musical and vociferously praised the two gangsters. This went on for several minutes when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Two guys to my left, nursing beers.

“We’re those guys,” one man said. “Thanks for the kind words.”