In the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a shabby dry bar sits partially obscured behind an armchair at stage left. For the show’s characters, it is never far from mind; by my count, 27 drinks are poured there over the course of the three-act play. All that onstage guzzling seems to be having an effect on audience members. The show, a hit among critics, has also brought a windfall in bar receipts to the Booth Theatre, where it will run through March.
“My business for this show is really high. A lot of people come back for refills,” said Luis Sapien, the theater’s bar manager. “They feel if they don’t drink, they’ll be left out. I mean, they’re watching people drink onstage for hours.” At $10 each, drinks can be purchased before the curtain, as well as during the two intermissions. For an additional $5, one receives a plastic souvenir cup, which is allowed into the auditorium—but not for drinks with ice. “Too clinky,” Sapien said.
At a 7 p.m. performance one Tuesday, the lobby smelled pleasantly publike. One blonde woman in an all-burgundy ensemble ordered a vodka before the show, another at the first intermission, then downgraded to Chardonnay an hour later. Refusing to pay for a souvenir cup, she swigged standing up.
“My girlfriend brought me,” a patron named Mike Lovascio said gruffly as he ordered a Maker’s Mark. “One of the first things she said when we got here is, ‘You’re going to want a drink.’ ” In January, Kurt Andersen had the show’s star Tracy Letts on his radio program and confessed to feeling the same way. Letts, who plays George, saw the contagious boozing as a sort of empathetic success. “I guess what I hope is that [viewers] don’t simply get up and leave the theater and go, ‘That’s not me!’ I would hope that they see something that applies to them in their lives.” If that something is a bourbon, neat, so be it.
Generally, dramas don’t make their audiences quite so thirsty. “The straight plays don’t do as well as the musicals, which by their very nature get people enthused and in the drinking mood,” reported Norman Stiller, the assistant general manager of Sandbar Concessions, which caters for the Nederlander theaters on Broadway. Wicked yields brisk business, as does Rock of Ages, where wait staff take orders throughout the performance. (If Whitesnake doesn’t make you thirsty, what will?) But Virginia Woolf is not the only exception to the pattern. Big stars can also get crowds feeling festive—both Scarlett Johansson and Ricky Martin have been responsible for high drinks revenues. The all-time booziest show at the Booth was The Seafarer in 2007—it features a cast of drunken Irishmen.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been up since October, and over the last few months, Sapien has noticed a few trends while tending bar: girlfriends bringing ex-boyfriends as a savage, if obvious, joke; many droll requests for “bergin”—a reference to an extended monologue in the second act. As I stood near the bar, assessing loitering drinkers and trying to predict their next order, Sapien sighed. “My next show is Matilda. It’s going to be completely different.”