David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Drama becomes a public convenience
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At least when I visited Studio 54 a few years ago to see a revival of Cabaret, it still had faint echoes of its years as the city's most infamous nightclub. Nowadays, as home to the latest production of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, it's back to being just another New York theatre.

Only the leopard-skin carpets give a wink to its history. It seems a pity though that the current owners, the Roundabout Theatre Company, couldn't have left something to celebrate its heritage as the place where Warhol, Jagger, Hall et al used to party a quarter of a century ago. A scrap of dance floor, maybe. A single strobe? A communal water mattress?

But Broadway is about money-making, so it is too much to expect the quirky, at least when it comes to the accommodations. Refreshing (if not to the nose), therefore, was news of a two-week run of the award-winning Irish play Ladies & Gents. Brought to the city by the Irish Arts Centre in Manhattan, it was staged exactly where it had to be: in a public lavatory. More specifically, ticket-holders were invited to show up at the lavatories halfway down the wide steps to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

There is no cloakroom, certainly no bar, and every seat is in the stalls. Well, that is not quite correct. What happened is that the audience of roughly 50 people was divided in two – half of us were pointed to the ladies, half to the gents. And no one sat in the stalls, so to speak, or indeed anywhere. Instead, we were directed to stand outside them, ready to view the action in the hand-washing area.

This sounds gimmicky, of course, and that is perhaps why the run, sadly now ended, was a near total sell-out. All the world is a stage, or so the Bard said, so why not public facilities too? Actors can tread porcelain just as well as boards. Consider each act a movement. Part of the genius of the play, written and directed by Karl Shiels and starring Laoisa Sexton as a prostitute who meets a violent end in the ladies, is that its two acts are performed simultaneously. Those of us first stood in the ladies are shepherded to the gents at the halfway point to see the second part. And vice versa. But it doesn't matter which half you see first and only on seeing both parts does the full story become clear.

The company was also blessed by timing. It is a noir thriller set in a sexually repressed Dublin in the mid-Fifties, which tells of politicians and people in high society succumbing to the lure of paid-for sex and coming a cropper because of it.

Remind you of something? Well it did us in New York. Better still, the Manhattan apartment of the disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer actually overlooks Central Park. The success of Ladies & Gents raises the question where the next "weirdest venue" for a play will be. One idea: while someone out there is already writing a book about the downfall of Mr Spitzer, how about a play too? We recommend putting it on in Room 871 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.