Don't Bring Your iPad to Once the Musical

The marquee out front said that this was the show with the most Tony nominations. Inside, the place was buzzing. There was a pub onstage full of musicians playing Irish folk ditties; people were finding their seats, drinking pints out of plastic thermoses; ice and drinks were spilled in the aisles. It was exciting. I'd never seen the film the show is based on, but I knew people, smart people, who had seen the show three times.

We -- it wasn't Nana; she's still stuck in London, though she would have adored this play, because she's a big music lover -- slowly squeezed by a couple of elderly ladies, and then a lady even the elderly ladies would have called elderly, and plopped into our seats as the last pre-show song was winding down. Then things got a little confusing. Because there was no formal announcement about turning off cell phones like usual, it was difficult to tell when the pre-show ended and the play started. I could hear the ushers telling people to shut off their electronic devices, but it sounded like a faint plea. It showed me how the normal announcements serve the additional function of signaling the start of the show, like "fasten your seatbelts" on an airplane. An elderly musician kicked up a solo on stage and the audience started to quiet, but the lights still weren't lowered, which, I assume, is why the middle-aged man to my right didn't turn off his iPad. I guess he thought he was at a real concert, because he raised his large screen and started taking pictures of the performers. I was sitting at his side and the light from his screen was distracting, but I'm sure it was flat-out disruptive for the people behind him.

Sure enough, someone complained, but all I could hear was my neighbor say -- think Tony Soprano gruff -- "Yeah, I'll turn it off in a minute." That wasn't fast enough for whoever was behind us. I heard, "No, now," and then I guess he touched Mr. Soprano, because Tony went berserk.

"Don't you fucking touch me. I will destroy you. I will kill you. You touch me again, I will kill you." The play was in full swing even though the lights weren't down, and most people, including my guest, were unaware of the fight about to break out. I looked back at the offending toucher -- he was a mild-mannered Joe whose theater experience was about to be ruined. Tony Soprano was acting like a jackass at a baseball game fighting over a fly ball, except here he was surrounded by gray-hairs and tourists. He kept on going.

"You touch me again, you'll walk home with a bloody stump, know what I'm sayin'?" Mild Joe smartly didn't answer because Tony's temperature was going through the roof. Then Tony stood up and turned back to threaten the guy, but his wife yanked him back down, as if she'd done it a thousand times before. What were they going to do, duke it out in the theater? I thought about calling security, but then I realized they probably don't have security because no one fights at the fucking theater.

Finally the lights darkened and Tony Soprano tried to cool down. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him reach for his wife's hand and get rejected. He drank from his thermos and took up too much of our shared armrest. I huddled closer to my guest and tried to lose myself in the show. Like I said, I'd never seen the film, but after the play, I ordered a pizza and watched it. It's funny to think that the play production probably cost ten times as much as the film, which was famously made for a penny and shot on video. Normally we think that Hollywood takes the humble material from the theater and blows it up into a spectacle, but here it was the opposite. Songs that in the movie were performed in intimate spaces like a music shop or a quiet street at night are now numbers performed for a whole theater. The purposely simple love story is well served by the limited number of sets on stage, and the music elevates the material so that it gets at something essential and euphoric about being creative and in love. It's funny, but somehow the Irish can get away with material that would seem sappy if anyone else did it. The accents and location make any subject seem alternately deep, funny, and beautiful.

There is a moment in the first act of the play where a woman suggests killing a rival for another man's girlfriend. The moment is played for laughs, but I could feel it land on my neighbor. We were laughing at the obvious absurdity of a comment he had just said in earnest. Later, the goofy comic-relief character, a bald man with a beard who pretends to know karate, threatens the protagonist, and again it is played for laughs. Tony Soprano didn't move a muscle, which told me he knew how silly he had been. Finally, after five or six of the fluid melodies had lulled the audience into a pleasant and attuned calm, I saw Tony Soprano reach for his wife's hand one more time. He made a gesture that said, "What, I know I fucked up, can I please hold your hand?" And yes, she grudgingly took it. The love story had brought them back together.

At intermission I wasn't sure if he was going to confront mild-mannered Joe, but he stayed in his seat and pointedly didn't look around. The bar on stage became a real bar and patrons could buy refreshments. Tony Soprano took out his iPad and logged onto Facebook. Thank God he put it away for Act Two.