September 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why Broadway is more vital now than ever

I had to have a couple of drinks first.

Ibsen, never the cheeriest guy in the world, was the last person I particularly felt like hearing from last night, but tickets had been bought weeks ago; ”Hedda Gabler” was being hailed; Kate Burton was supposed to be fantastic; it was the first night of previews; the Broadway economy is crumbling and the mayor had called on us all to see a show. Blah blah blah. Who the hell cared? I didn’t want to go. I was shaking before I left. The only thing that got me out the door was the desire to see my grandmother — not only my closest relation in the city, but someone with whom theater is a once-every-couple-of-months ritual. Who knows? I thought, it could be healthy. We got to the restaurant.

And then my girlfriend reminded me of the plot of the play (in short: desperation, slow spiral into madness, the transformation of good into evil and, uh, suicide). I quickly ordered drinks.

There has been a lot of drinking going on in New York City.

But once we got through dinner and teetered over to 48th Street, minus the abundance of bunting and flags and cut-outs of Osama bin Laden from the New York Daily News screaming ”WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE!” you’d have had no idea that this wasn’t a typical night on Broadway. Tickets were taken. Seats easily reached. The house almost full. The curtain drawn the typical five minutes late. And then it started.

I was lost. I’ve never really appreciated Ibsen — some, like my grandmother and girlfriend, would say that I hate him — but the show was as good as advertised. It was transportive. And felt very needed right now. It wasn’t like watching a movie at home, where the stop button plunges you back into news, or reading a book, where you feel a nagging guilt because you aren’t taking on world events. It swept you up without obliterating September 11 and even offered scraps of advice that somehow seem important right now. (”I’m all fuzzy in my head,” complains one character to his aunt. Her response: ”Look toward the center of things, my boy.”)

Broadway has been on the vanguard of the back-to-normalcy campaign, a decision that has raised eyebrows. After going last night, it’s clear that what seemed questionable last week is unassailable now. Up and running, offering the services of our best writers and actors, theater seems more vital now than ever. The work of Broadway in this past week has been, indeed, the very best face of the art.

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