The other day my parents came to town and took a bunch of us to a Broadway play. To my horror, it turned out to be Cats.
After the initial shock, I decided it couldn't possibly be as bad as I'd heard. I was wrong.
The problem is not that Cats is lowbrow entertainment. The truth is, it's not any kind of entertainment at all. The songs aren't catchy, there's no plot, and even if you're fond of dance, you can watch people in cat costumes prance around on a stage only so long before you start clawing the walls.
When my niece saw the sign boasting that Cats is "the longest-running play on Broadway," she was worried that it referred to the duration of the performance. I assured her that it meant the play had opened a long time ago. But after the people in furry suits started slithering and meowing, I wasn't so sure.
According to my watch, the play was about two and a half hours long. That's 17.5 in cat hours.
Although the show is supposed to be appropriate for children 4 and older, my 6-year-old daughter, Francine, could not sit still and keep quiet for more than a few minutes at a stretch. I could hardly blame her. "It's sooooo boring!" she kept saying.
At one point, the guy in front of me turned around and asked, "Is that your daughter?" I tried to deny it, but I don't think he believed me. "Doesn't she know that you're not supposed to talk in the theater?" he asked sternly.
I wanted to say, "Listen, buddy, my daughter's reactions are the most entertaining thing going on in this theater." Instead, I just mumbled that we were trying to teach her the proper decorum when confronted by unbearable tedium.
Every time Francine made a comment above a whisper, I tensed up, looking nervously at the guy who had complained. Finally, I took her out for a chocolate milk shake, and we came back after the intermission.
When the curtain rose, Francine's face fell. "I saw this one already!" she said plaintively. "Why are we watching it again?" She had assumed we were going to a different play because the first one was so terrible.
This time, my wife took her out, leaving me to decipher the unintelligible lyrics and follow the nonexistent story line. The play seemed to be a series of disconnected vignettes about cats with names like Broccoli and Leviticus. Some were pirates, while others worked in the theater. For some reason, they kept singing a Barry Manilow song.
This was not an authentic reflection of the feline experience, which consists mainly of sleeping, eating, and spewing hairballs. We've got three cats, and I'm glad we didn't bring them. I'm sure they would have been offended.
Everyone else seemed to be enjoying the play. They applauded after each number. They clapped rhythmically and sang along during "Magical Mr. Mistoffelees," a song that seemed to consist entirely of one line. They gave the play a standing ovation.
When it was all mercifully over, and the big guy in the shag carpet had ridden the giant tire, we learned that we were present at the 7,000th performace of Cats. Assuming 1,300 at each performance, something like 9 million people have voluntarily seen this play. And that's just on Broadway.
That calculation does not take into account the freaks who have seen Cats a dozen times or more. I'm assuming–hoping, really–that there can't be very many of them. On the day we went, only a few of the audience members were made up like characters from the play, indicating a level of interest that surpassed puzzling and rose to alarming.
Many of the people leaving the theater were smiling; others were happily devouring the yellow-iced chocolate cupcakes distributed in honor of the 7,000th performance. Nobody seemed dissatisfied.
I was thinking: What did they see that I missed? How is it possible that something so mind-numbingly dull could still be running after 17 years?
Seeing my father, I politely asked him what he thought of the play. He said he never would have gone to see it had he known that it was based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, a notorious anti-Semite. I guess everyone has his priorities.