To walk or not to walk — suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous theater

     This June 13, 1984 photo released by Magnolia Pictures shows film critics Roger Ebert, left, and Gene Siskel in screening room for photo shoot in Chicago, used in the documentary

    This June 13, 1984 photo released by Magnolia Pictures shows film critics Roger Ebert, left, and Gene Siskel in screening room for photo shoot in Chicago, used in the documentary "Life Itself." (AP Photo/Magnolia Pictures, Kevin Horan)

    I used to have rules about certain things. No ice cream before 4 p.m. Never read the end of the book before you get there. No TV, just radio, before 6 p.m. And absolutely never walk out on a movie or a show before it’s over.

    Well, as you know, life happens. Ice cream tastes good for breakfast some days. Morning TV got much better. I lost patience with waiting to find out if my favorite characters were still alive at the end of the book so I started peeking, and sometimes abandoning it altogether after I knew that everyone was agreeably disposed of.

    But I still struggle with walking out on a large public entertainment, like a movie or a concert or the theater.

    Now I grant you, these are not exactly the same. The movie is impersonal; no one’s feelings will be hurt if I sneak out after only a few minutes. We have no compunction about watching only a few minutes of a TV show, or flipping TV channels, or watching several programs at once. We even record things we never watch. But then no one is watching us do this. We can break as many promises to ourselves as we want, and the only consequence is our own feeling of inadequacy.

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    But I’ve paid for that seat in the movies or the concert or the show. I’ve made a public commitment to watch something — and shouldn’t I watch it through?

    In the past month or so, I have seen several films — and I’ve walked out more than once. I didn’t much care that these films had won awards or gotten great reviews. One (“Starred Up“) was so filled with violence in the first five minutes that I couldn’t bear to watch more. And, in the other case, the theater (at Ritz Five) was so cold, despite my pleas to management that I couldn’t stand to sit there one more minute. So I left.

    There are films I wish I had left, but I dutifully sat there because I had paid the entrance fee and felt like I ought to. One of those films was “Life Itself,” the recent documentary of film critic Roger Ebert’s last days. I watched it and really wish I hadn’t. Many have reviewed the filmed favorably, but I wonder: Are they reviewing the person they knew, rather than the film they saw? That he was so mentally alive was amazing, but that we had to witness his deterioration was like watching the wreck on the side of the road: We do it, but we don’t like ourselves for it.

    I watched most of this film as I have others, with my eyes closed. I’ve never actually seen the “Psycho” shower scene or the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” And I did pay my entrance fee and walk out of the Mütter Museum after a few minutes, figuring they could keep my money, because I just didn’t want to see all that … whatever it is.

    Would I actually walk out on a show? It would take a lot to get me to do that. Watching a show is personal. There are real people up there working really hard to entertain me. Is it always successful? No. A lot of shows I’ve seen recently, even those with a list of awards to their titles, could use one more round with a good dramaturge. But I feel I ought to see it through — even if some shows do put my commitment to the test.

    Much Philadelphia theater comes with a pedigree — a Tony, a Drama Desk Award, a Pulitzer Prize — so we may enter the auditorium assured that others have approved and validated our choice to plunk down the ticket price. And we get to see the work of some very talented actors and directors. Nonetheless, I have seen people walk out in protest, even in the middle of a scene, when the language gets too raunchy or the subject matter too uncomfortable.

    And sometimes, we take our chances at a “world premiere” — a fancy name for something that hasn’t been done elsewhere yet. As this year’s Fringe Festival approaches, I know my determination to see a show through no matter what will be challenged. This is a time when performers get to experiment and audiences learn to be tolerant. And I will just have to accept that I’ve agreed to spend up to two hours watching something that may make me wish I was elsewhere.

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