World’s Most Expensive Theater Ticket Is All About You, Not Springsteen

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The cast of Edward Tucker's 'You,' includes Jean Kinsella (foreground) and, from left: Jessica Andres, Rai Quartley, Gerard Joseph and Seth Austin. Kenji Kang

Confession: I am that annoying, low self-control boor at a play or movie constantly nudging his wife and snark-whispering while the room rocks with laughter (which is why she sits two seats away whenever possible). And yes, I also tend to snort and sneer as the hoi polloi unanimously sniffle over a hackneyed Hallmark-moment.

Call me anhedonic, unentertainable, a snob—I will proudly claim any of these honorifics. In a perfect world, I’d be alone in an empty theater, with no one gagging on fake-buttered popcorn or giggling at pratfalls within five nautical miles of me.

Well, I must have been chanting to the right graven images of late, as I recently found myself the one and lonely audience member in a warehouse/performance space in downtown Los Angeles—and not because the rest of the city was stuck in traffic or getting their bliss on in a kabala/Pilates class. My fellow Angelenos couldn’t have come even if they’d wanted to, for I was the evening’s only invited guest.

Welcome to You, a maximally minimalist exercise in that ever-expanding genre known as immersive theater, where the traditional line between performer and audience is blurred, if it exists at all. Site-specific theater pieces have fast become de rigueur in the artsy precincts of London and Manhattan, but You is not even your stoned beatnik uncle’s idea of quadruple-off-Broadway esoterica. Theater-for-one—is it for solipsists, narcissists or just dime-store misanthropes like me?

And what fine breed of masochistic producer goes through the Byzantine tumult and fearsome expense of mounting a play for exactly one customer per evening? Max Bialystock comes to mind, but in this case put the blame on a hypercerebral playwright-producer by the name of Edward Tucker, whose Hall & Mirrors production company set the price for a ticket to You at (drumroll, please!) a bankroll-busting $5,000 per—which begs a droll cynic like myself to wonder: “Do fries come with that Shakespeare?

10_17_you_01 The cast of Edward Tucker's 'You,' includes Jean Kinsella (foreground) and, from left: Jessica Andres, Rai Quartley, Gerard Joseph and Seth Austin. Kenji Kang

That’s easily the most expensive theater ticket on record. (Mind you, a ticket to Bruce Springsteen’s solo Broadway show recently popped up on StubHub for a cool $9,000. If I had a spare nine large, I’d definitely find myself a nice used Porsche to sit in—not a theater seat.) And yes, pommes frites do come with the price of a ticket to You, as well as caviar, Serrano ham or whatever else you care to eat or drink. Not only that, you will also be picked up by a chauffeur-driven SUV-limo and whisked to an unmarked building where—upon your grand entrance—seven smartly attired young actors are posed statue-still in what looks like a swank cocktail lounge.

At which point, somebody claps their hands and the performers come to vivid life, welcoming the night’s privileged guest (ahem!) with velvet handshakes and even softer smiles. If you’ve ever wondered what it felt like to be, say, the Pope (or even Springsteen), this is about as close as you may ever get. I must admit—notorious tough sell that I am—that my defenses fell away almost instantaneously. Being you had its advantages.

(It later occurred to me that if I had walked into an actual bar where these comely cosmopolites were gathered, they’d have likely called for the check and wandered down to the next hipster watering hole.)

Ensconced at the bar, we bantered and gossiped like long-lost cousins for a good while, sharing names and birthplaces and the like. I sipped on a second Old Fashioned (the first one had awaited me in the SUV) and started to loosen up a smidgen. I’d had a gnawing apprehension that I was in for an uncomfortably personal evening (word was that the staff had Googled my CV prior to showtime). Was I to play some kind of off-season Ebenezer Scrooge about to face my wicked past, replete with howling ghosts and jangling chains? That’s entertainment? Hey, but you don’t pay the big dollars and expect to be merely diverted. For that kind of dough a bit of catharsis is in order, maybe even a little terror.

Then one of the actors proffered an actual menu of 10 theatrical pieces (or “plates”) and asked me to select as few or as many as I liked, in any sequence. When I chose “Recherche” to kick things off, the players nearly gasped in unison. I’d picked a piece subtitled: “The lessons we learn from our parents haunt our dreams,” and it proved to be the most psycho-dramatic entrée of the evening. I might have begun with an intellectual amuse bouche like Turing (“A curious satire on technology and what makes us human”) or an erotic pas de deux like Fire (“One drink with a stranger can change everything”). Me, I went for the histrionics.

I was then led gingerly from my comfy barstool to a folding chair “onstage” as the lights went from ambient to brightly theatrical. My drinking buddies were now “in character,” and I was suddenly their erstwhile—and only—auditor. The action—a caustic exchange between an estranged father and daughter—took place around me as if I were invisible, though that illusion was quickly dispelled when a large rectangular mirror was wheeled to within a few feet of where I sat. Gulp.

The plot may not have thickened at that point, but my self-consciousness surely did. Like it or not, I was now part of the mise-en-scène, with nobody to nudge or exchange cynical looks with. Jolted back to a few childhood memories of my own, I listened intently to the sharply etched dialogue and tried to look more comfortable than I felt. The pitiless spotlights glaring above did little to help the matter. There was nowhere to hide, nary even a shadow.

10_17_you_03 A ticket to see 'You' costs $5,000. Cast, from left: Lola Kelly, Rai Quartley, Jean Kinsella, Gerard Joseph, Aimee Stolte, Jessica Andres, Seth Austin and Nova Gaver. Kenji Kang

“Most kids have an adolescence. You had a research lab of sadism,” the father character hissed to his grown daughter, who was busy rattling off a laundry list of adolescent grievances. “I don’t need to hate you anymore,” she answered back stoically. “My anger isn’t useful anymore, and my overpriced shrink says I should make peace with you.”

After 15 minutes of such emotionally fraught (and smartly acted) action, we repaired to the bar and resumed our casual civilian roles as if nothing unusual had transpired. I applauded them (the next-quietest sound to one hand clapping), and our conversation deepened a bit, going from our favorite local taco joints to tiny shards of personal and family history. They knew a bit about me already, but I was eager to hear their origin stories and how they wound up at You. With me.

Twenty such sociable minutes passed before I had the presence of mind to request another filet de theatre, which involved a completely different scenario and cast than the preceding episode. In fact, each of the plates on the menu were freestanding and discontinuous—call it sketch tragedy if you must. But that’s all according to Tucker’s (and director Daniel Student’s) artful design. Aristotle’s unities were nowhere in sight, plot, per se, was not an issue, and there was certainly no deus ex machina poised to swoop down and round off any dangling narrative edges come final curtain time (p.s., there were no curtains).

After four platefuls of alternately stimulating and harrowing “half-act” plays, I had begun to fade (it was nearly 11 p.m., well past my bedtime), and I was a trifle tipsy to boot. Being “you” was harder than it looked, on or offstage. Plus, I felt like a bit of a feudal lord demanding that his serfs yet again strum their lutes and dance before being carried into my bedchamber on a litter.

Yet somewhere between the boozy badinage and the close encounters of the Strindbergian kind, a minor miracle had occurred without my even noticing: my prickly inner critic had softened considerably, had even grown genuinely fond of these seven earnest players, so much so that I was pulling for them instead of looking for excuses to detach or complain. I was Bottom and they my humble troupe of rustics. And a midsummer evening purportedly devoted to me had somehow become a matter of we. Fancy that.

But no, that wasn’t a tear welling in the corner of my eye as we said our goodbyes at evening’s end—it was probably just perspiration. (Remember, those confounded stage lights were awfully bright.) Let’s just say I was thoroughly immersed by the proceedings and leave it at that.

You will continue to be performed at an undisclosed location indefinitely—or until the producer finds his next paradigm to shatter. Tickets are being sold at face value, but apparently not for profit’s sake—Tucker says it costs nearly $5,000 to put on a single performance. If it was commerce and not art that mattered, I’m sure a smart fellow like him could have hashed out a far better business model. Arsenic and Old Lace, anyone?

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