Cell phone made me a theater vigilante

By Kevin D. Williamson, Special to CNN

updated 4:57 PM EDT, Fri May 17, 2013

“(CNN) — I have the great privilege of writing the theater column for The New Criterion, the arts-and-culture journal founded by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist Samuel Lipman in 1982. Some people have to be in an office at 8 a.m., but I get to be at the theater at 8 p.m. It is a pretty sweet gig.

The power of theater comes from its ability to surprise. Once or twice a season, I am treated to an unexpected discovery: While movies so often are cut, polished, CGI’d, and market-researched to death, even the most commercial piece of tourist-bait theater — lookin’ at you, “Evita” — contains within it an element of unpredictability.

The audiences, unfortunately, are drearily predictable. It’s the old one-in-every-family phenomenon: They will be late. They will talk. Their cell phones will ring, and some of them, by God, will answer them. They will text, and they may even play a few rounds of Words with Friends during the third act. They are the enemy. They are depressing not because their bad manners surprise us, but because they do not surprise us.

I found myself in the news this week after offering a surprise of my own at a New York theater: The woman seated next to me was on her phone throughout most of the show. (It was “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” in case you’re wondering, a musical based on “War and Peace.” You know what show you shouldn’t see in New York if you have the attention span of a goldfish? One based on “War and Peace.”) When she was not on her phone, she and her friends were engaged in a four-part imitation of a “Sex and the City” brunch conversation. I asked her nicely — more than once — but she did not respond to courtesy. She said: “Just don’t look.” So I took her phone from her and tossed it.

There was a moment of wonderful, shocked silence. She salvaged such self-respect as she could — which is to say, she slapped me — and then stalked off in search of her phone. A few minutes later, I was visited by an annoyed gentleman in a black suit and soon enough found myself out on the street.

Yes, it was worth it.

In part, I blame the theater managers. If you seat people who show up late, they will show up late. One or two high-profile ejections a month would go a long way toward beating some sense into the theater-going public.

But you can never design a perfect protocol. Audiences must behave. People are awful, of course — somebody once observed that every civilization faces a barbarian invasion every generation in the form of its children — and the Broadway and off-Broadway crowd is full of miscreants.

Theater is New York and New York is theater, and New York is not much like the rest of the country. (Shake Shack, a summertime favorite in Madison Square Park, has a menu for dogs.) New York is one of the world capitals of self-importance. And, with the possible exception of Washington, there is no city in the country where self-importance is more disconnected from actual importance. If I could buy New Yorkers for what they’re worth and sell them for what they think they’re worth, I’d own Fifth Avenue from Saks to Harlem.

That guy whispering into his cell phone? He isn’t getting the news that little Timmy finally has a donor for his heart transplant — he’s just another schmuck having a schmuck conversation with schmucks elsewhere. That guy tapping away on his smartphone isn’t restructuring the derivatives markets — he’s playing “Angry Birds.” The lady to my right, I am willing to bet, was not receiving her orders from the Impossible Missions Force, and her phone did not self-destruct.

I destructed it. And I am not sorry.

I am advised that what I did was almost certainly a crime. And if the law, in its majesty, should decide that I need to spend a night in jail over this episode, then I will be happy to do so.

But I think of it as an act of criticism. Occasionally, a shocking gesture is called for, perhaps even a histrionic one. I may have met conventional-grade rudeness with thermonuclear counterforce, but I did it in the interests of civility, violating standards to preserve them.

Theater-goers on Twitter jokingly compared me to Batman: Not the hero Gotham deserves, the hero it needs. I don’t know about that: Grumpiness is not much of a superpower. But we will live in exactly as rude and coarse a world as we will tolerate, and I do not intend to tolerate very much.”

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