Zoe Caldwell performing in a new play, "Elective Affinities," in...

Zoe Caldwell performing in a new play, "Elective Affinities," in an Upper East Side townhouse. Credit: Julieta Cervantes Photo/

A formal invitation, in handsome script, arrived as email. It seems that Mrs. Alice Hauptmann had extended a "cordial invitation" to an "informal gathering" at her home. The note promised that fine teas would be brewed. Ladyfingers and sandwiches -- without crusts, no doubt -- would be served and, as the invitation almost commanded, "enjoyed."

It was a missive from another age, or at least from a distant social class. The only giveaway was the understanding that Mrs. Hauptmann -- sorry, Alice H. as subsequent communication insisted -- was inviting me to tea at a location to be disclosed in another email.

What I knew is that I was invited to peek behind the imposing doors of privilege at an Upper East Side town house, which shall remain undisclosed, I promised, though I can tell you that it is on Fifth Avenue with a view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A pianist plays Chopin on the first floor, where sandwiches are passed.

Also, Alice H. is dreadful to her butler. And, oh yes, Alice H. is really Zoe Caldwell, the four-time Tony-winning actress, the original Maria Callas in "Master Class" and currently a grandmother in the upcoming Tom Hanks movie, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

So I went to a marvelous party -- or at least a party in a marvelous place, which happened to be the perfect setting for one of the more delicious and disturbing recent examples of what's called, for lack of a more compelling term, site-specific theater.

Caldwell, dressed in old-money brocades and pearls, greets us at the top of a winding staircase and talks as if she knows each of us. Then she settles into the grand but cozy study, smiles with Cheshire graciousness, as she begins to read perfectly terrible justifications for political torture in "Elective Affinities," a brief but chilling monologue by David Adjmi.

The whole thing takes no more than an hour, including the tea, and -- here's the discouraging part -- only seats 30 people at a time. The entire run, through Dec. 18, sold out in little more time than it took to announce the event. (Isolated tickets, each $30, may become available, so call 212-352-3101 or visit hauptmannresidence.com).

I'm not here to torment you about something you probably aren't going to be able to see. Well, maybe a little. But the event, which I attended last Sunday at the civilized hour of 5 p.m., is just one of the more attention-getting examples of a renewed interest in site-specific experiences. The exclusivity, in this case, is part of the message.

This is hardly a new trend, this theater in which the place, not just the play, is the thing.

In the past few years, however, New Yorkers could have shared a noir thriller in the restrooms in Central Park ("Ladies & Gents"), seen a play with just you and an actor in a tiny box in Times Square ("Theatre for One"), gone to a Brooklyn cemetery ("Spoon River Anthology") or been guests in a penthouse loft at a party where gay men get really nasty (the 1968 groundbreaker, "The Boys in the Band").

Right now, you can put on a spooky white mask to dash around dozens of meticulously decorated rooms in a mysterious pretend hotel in Chelsea and follow different characters in an environmental spectacular/art installation loosely based on "Macbeth." ("Sleep No More," 866-811-4111;


Last summer, you could have gone to the basement gym at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village to sit in bleachers and see a hit basketball musical called "Lysistrata Jones" by the Transport Group, which staged that you-are-there "Boys in the Band."

If you had, you would be able to compare that version to the one opening on Broadway Dec. 14 at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200; lysistratajones.com). Expect hoops to be played. In "Lysistrata," Aristophanes wrote about women refusing to have sex with their men until they stopped making war. In this update, which has a book by Douglas Carter Beane and score by Lewis Finn, cheerleaders won't have sex with the Athens University team until it wins.

At Judson, there were 90 seats. On Broadway, there are more like 950. Still, Dan Knechtges, director and choreographer, tells me the show isn't radically different in the conventional space. "It is different in terms of detail, but not in the big picture. We've replicated the scrappy gym walls. The stage goes right to left, and left to right" -- like the game -- and the company, coached for Broadway by former NBA star Chris Mullin, probably has better moves now. Knechtges, who first staged this in a large proscenium house in Dallas, says he always hoped the show would move to Broadway.

In contrast, Adjmi tells me that the town house production for "Elective Affinities" is "the way I always wanted it." Commissioned 10 years ago by London's Royal Court for a human-rights theater festival, the monologue has been directed with almost excruciating charm and intimacy by Soho Rep's artistic director Sarah Benson as a collaboration by her ever-provocative theater, along with piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory.

He says audiences should be "comfortable but discomforted. . . . Usually we know the drill when we go to the theater. We sit down and get the program. We know what's going to happen. With this, we don't quite know how it's going to work."

Alice H. puts us at ease before, ever so politely, tossing us into the carnivorous cruelty of the jungle and the discriminatory nature of love. Much like the narrator in Wallace Shawn's "Fever," a monologue about torture that the actor-playwright first performed in the living rooms of friends, this tiny gem sucks us into feeling lucky to be enjoying the exclusivity -- almost enough to accept the horrendous cost.

Is today's site-specific theater more than a gimmick, more than an attempt to give audiences something they can't get in 3-D movies, on-demand entertainment and mass friending? Perhaps. But as long as I get lovely invitations and don't have to watch too many plays in park restrooms, I'm open.


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