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The Critic Who Smashed a Theatergoer’s Cell Phone Is No Hero

How do you teach a rude stranger about etiquette and manners? There’s an easy answer: you don’t.

Perhaps you’ve seen the story of National Review writer Kevin Williamson, who achieved Internet hero status this week after grabbing a theater patron’s cell phone during a performance of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 and throwing it across the room. It struck a nerve with many people: those who attend live theater performances and see movies and who have experienced Williamson’s frustration at the sight (and sounds) of a audience member’s distracting cell phone use. But while many of us have wanted to take physical action in response to our cell phone-induced anger, most of us don’t. The reason is because it would make us as bad — if not worse — than the person using his or her phone so cavalierly during a performance or film.

Here’s the thing about rude people: if they’re going to carelessly distract those around them during a film or a play, odds are they will not be easy to reason with. I’ve seen this firsthand: recently, at a Friday night performance of the Tony-nominated Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, I heard the familiar sound of a cell phone’s vibration coming from the seats behind me. (At first I touched my own pocket, thinking that I had forgotten to turn my phone off despite the repeated announcements before every curtain on Broadway is raised.) I was surprised when the woman behind me started murmuring into her phone — right in the middle of the second act! My boyfriend and I turned and gave looks, and when he told her, “That is really distracting,” she murmured something back while shutting off her phone. We turned back to watch the show — it’s not every day you see Sigourney Weaver on stage, and I was more interested in paying attention to her — and we ignored the mutterings behind us that died down once she knew we weren’t going to respond to her.

Luckily, the woman behind us quietly complied, as we didn’t instigate a conflict with her. But I have been to shows where outbursts could be heard from across the theater, distracting not just the audience on the opposite side of the house but also the actors on stage. It’s not unusual for something in the audience to throw an actor off his or her game. A friend saw Frances McDormand stop the show during a pretty intense monologue at the end of the second act of Good People after a cell phone went off and its owner answered it. The actors stood silently on stage, watching as audience members screamed at the woman with the phone; after the woman walked out of the theater, McDormand started the scene over again to applause from the audience.

There’s also the infamous audio recording of Patti LuPone stopping mid-song during her run in Gypsy to verbally assault a patron who had been taking pictures from his seat during the performance. One can imagine the (deserved) embarrassment the theatergoer felt as LuPone’s screams from stage followed him while he quickly left the theater.

It’s a little easier to grant hero status to McDormand and LuPone; after all, they are the performers who are bringing in the audience, and it’s their job to entertain us from the stage. But Kevin Williamson, after complaining to management about the woman next to him who was “Googling or something on her phone” (not actually having a phone call, it should be noted), responded with physical vigilante force. It gave him some press (the woman slapped him, and is apparently pressing charges), and several bloggers across the Internet have congratulated him for what they have been inspired to do themselves.

But what did he prove? Williamson engaged in an angry conversation with a stranger during a musical performance, one that is set in an intimate cabaret environment. Surely that was distracting to his fellow audience members, not to mention the actors. In the end, he was forced to leave the show, and I can imagine that the scene of watching a woman slap her neighbor and then having security escort him out disrupted the performance for many more people than the woman’s silent Googling. I don’t find it inspiring; I find Williamson’s actions to be just as (if not more) rude than the woman who annoyed him. It’s not commendable, and it’s a shame to see an amateur provocateur take the attention away from the people on stage in the show whose job it is to perform for an audience.

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