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The Knee-Jerk Standing Ovation

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I have been baffled for the last few years by audiences rising up like ecstatic robots to give a standing ovation to every Broadway show I have recently attended, no matter how puerile, how badly performed or conceived, no matter how mediocre, as if they have just experienced a high point in national culture.

Of course, there have been some shows, admittedly few and far between deserving of such a tribute. And it is a tribute. It suggests that the new theater audience might not know the difference or that they are sincerely in thrall to anything at all that appears live on stage.

As a veteran theatergoer, I refuse to stand and celebrate what I believe is in my opinion mediocre, undeserving or, put another way, routine and unspectacular. It is not easy to be a snobby non-conformist while people around me are joyously demonstrating their robust indiscriminant praise. Sorry folks, but it makes me feel like the only one not heiling at a Leni Riefenstahl film of a Nazi rally.

Frankly these raucous cheerleaders make me feel intimidated, an unappreciative luddite, out of place, someone to be ostracized or, at best, pitied with an arthritic problem that inhibits an easy standing position.

Are these mesmerized worshipful people around me really celebrating the greatness and glory of what they have experienced? Are they celebrating the fact that they have finally seen their first Broadway show? Are they the family and friends of one of the actors, the director or producer of the show? Do they believe this is the traditional way one shows one's appreciation for the act of simple practicing performance art?

Such gestures do not routinely happen in London or Sydney, except when what has been seen is really unique, and spectacularly praiseworthy. On the other hand, based on the premise that there are different strokes for different folks, it could be that I am truly the only one in the audience who was not moved by the performance. Vive la difference.

To a veteran theatergoer like me, it is tempting to characterize these enthusiasts as a bunch of out of town hicks, which could be seen as a typical hard-bitten New Yorker's display of attitude. Going to the Broadway theater used to be an entirely different experience. Pardon the nostalgia but not everything new is as shiny as it seems. From my perspective the experience is badly tarnished and needs a rehab.

It used to be that people actually dressed up when they went to the Broadway theater. Most men wore shirts, ties and jackets and most women wore their finest clothes. Shorts, polo shirts, sneakers, backpacks and other types of so-called leisure wear were simply not worn as if somehow looking less than your best would denigrate the experience, the players and other members of the audience. It was part of the etiquette of theatergoing, a kind of respect for the performers and the idea of theater being an important cultural experience.

It is even worse when one observes what is going on in opera, particularly at the Met, which is undergoing a sea change in audience participation, demographics and productions in an effort to make the experience more egalitarian. Watching grand opera live has always been an ecstatic emotional experience for many and one has far more tolerance for an audience rushing to their feet after a performance and showering the stars with ear splitting appreciation.

It is, of course, a noble effort to open the audience to last minute bargain hunters who cannot afford the astoundingly high-ticket prices. To a true opera lover watching a live performance is as close to nirvana as one can get. All I'm suggesting is that everyone in the audience should be respectful of the protocol in dress and conduct. There is no polite or more subtle way to offer that point.

Yes, I can hear all the clatter from the peanut gallery of accusations of elitism, snobbery and fuddy-duddyism. When all is said and done however, the argument comes down to money. Making money in legitimate theater is a tough slog. Making money in opera is beyond hope and needs subsidies from everywhere to create its magic.

Grand opera aside, I am inclined to believe that, perhaps, my objection to the indiscriminate standing ovation is indicative of not only the decline in the cultural aspirations of the audience, but in the decline of the quality of what is on offer. For many of us addictive theatergoers the plethora of revivals can tend to be off-putting although we understand that branding and nostalgia is a powerful commercial tool. After all, Shakespeare plays have always been the coin of the realm on the live stage. That is one brand that is hard to tarnish.

What the shower of revivals indicates may not be because of the lack of originality in the creative pool of today's playwrights and composers, but because it is too risky financially to mount a production that is an unknown quantity by an unbranded talent. The result is that we are doomed to revivalism and the creative original has a tougher and tougher time to be seen and savored.

Perhaps to be kind, the indiscriminate ovation after the show is more a tribute to the survival of this art form than the appreciation of what the audience has just seen. That I can understand.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections. His books are published in 25 languages worldwide and several have been adapted to movies, including "The War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts." His new book, The Serpent's Bite will be published in September. For more information visit www.warrenadler.com.