Apartments To-Die-For: Onstage

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Oh, those love-at-first-sight moments. You fall for both the space and the design. Especially the design, which somehow evokes the sophistication of New York City in the perfect way.

Those book-lined shelves call to you. There is little or no feeling of being cramped into a small space in the big city. Instead, the apartments sell themselves with perfect proportions and so much space for entertaining that you could fit a theater audience in there with you.

Oh, wait ... there is an audience in there with you. Because you are in a theater. These spaces are works of the imagination, created by a playwright and a scenic designer.

Such Broadway and off-Broadway stage sets are perfect, except that they are fictional. Or is it that they perfect because they are fictional?

The New York Times' theater writer Patrick Healy got us to thinking about this with his recent article "Spaces to Lust For."

He started his article at exactly the right place, with the aforementioned bookshelves featured in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Collected Stories."

Linda Lavin stars as a witty but slightly bitter writer, ensconced in a gorgeous Greenwich Village apartment. Lucky her. The set design by the great Santo Loquasto is getting reviews that are almost as Lavin's. I saw an earlier production starring Uta Hagen downtown in 1998 and still have not stopped wanting to live in that apartment, fictional space or no.

Did "Collected Stories" net a Tony nomination for Loquasto, who told the Times that he "wanted to create this romantic bohemian ideal of a West Village home" for the show? Will the man who brought us those 12-foot-high bookcases take home Broadway's big honor for that set?

Nope. But he did get nominated for another show, "Fences." In this Broadway production, Loquasto recreates a part of the Hill District in Pittsburgh in 1957. Other nominees for set design include: John Lee Beatty ("The Royal Family"), Alexander Dodge ("Present Laughter") and Christopher Oram ("Red").

Apparently both "The Royal Family" and "Present Laughter" represented well the glitzy New York of another age, inspiring a fair amount of envy on the part of theatergoers. We shall see if that translates into a win on Sunday, June 13 at the Tony Awards.

One theatergoer who has given some thought to all the fake apartments he's seen: Michael Musto, the longstanding and lively columnist for The Village Voice. He explained to me this week that by necessity a stage set is going to look a lot larger than your average New York apartment. Because, um, a stage set is a lot larger than your average New York apartment.

"Sets are going to look bigger and better than anything we live in," Musto said. "Also, we come to theater for a slightly grander sense of reality -- especially in shows that aren't naturalistic to begin with -- so we willingly go along with the exalted real estate we're looking at, no matter how inconceivable."

Sometimes the sets almost drive producers to pick certain plays, Musto argued. Like in the case of Noel Coward's "Present Laughter," which Musto said promises the inevitable "fabulous winding stairway with a golden banister."

There's also, he added, "the reverse going on, too. Thanks to the recession, you can look at a bunch of dirty mirrors and some projections of Wisteria trees and convince yourself that this is the way 'A Little Night Music' is supposed to look."

If that seems a tiny bit mean, well, that's what makes Musto a must-read. He's got a point. Even those of us who loved "A Little Night Music" wondered why they hired the most beautiful woman in the world, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then turned off the lights.

Surely Musto is right about heading to the theater for a grander version of things. Critics have been deriding unrealistic sets for years -- and not just on the Great White Way. Most of us are still trying to figure out how the "Friends" ever afforded their digs.

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