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The Critic

Before I met David Koskoff ’61 LAW ’64 and his wife Charlotte Koskoff, I sat behind them during an undergraduate performance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead this October. Mr. Koskoff was the one leaning over and explaining a joke to his wife, loud enough for me to hear, too. I had seen the pair in many Yale audiences, but they were no one’s parents or professors that I knew. When I found them after the play, Mr. Koskoff confirmed proudly that he and his wife see between one and three undergraduate shows every weekend. Eager to share his thoughts on these shows, he invited me to dinner at their apartment on York Street in New Haven.

David and Charlotte Koskoff in their York Street Apartment. Susannah Shattuck

Though the Koskoffs’ interest is in Yale theater, I’ve never appeared on a Yale stage, so when I emailed, hoping to establish my credentials, I dropped the name of the play I was directing that opened in December. “We are definitely looking forward to your show,” Mr. Koskoff wrote back cordially. “Though I don’t think we have prior familiarity with your work…”

The Koskoffs spend only weekends at their York Street apartment, where they’ve lived since September 2009. The other five days, they live in Plainville, Connecticut, where Mr. Koskoff recently retired from his law firm. Also a writer, he has published three nonfiction books. One, Joseph P. Kennedy: A Life and Times (1974), made the front page of the New York Times Book Review. He still has the clip. He is currently at work on a biography of Tom Dodd, the former U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Mrs. Koskoff, also a lawyer, teaches at Central Connecticut State University, serves on the Plainville Board of Education, and has run for U.S. Congress twice. They have no children, and shouting through the house, they call each other “love.”

As Mr. Koskoff tells the story, he and his wife were just “casual theater consumers” until a 1989 production of Sweeney Todd converted the pair to self-described “Sondheads,” traveling cross-country to see productions of Stephen Sondheim’s work in Chicago and San Francisco. By 1998, they were meeting a devoted group of fellow Sondheads for dinner before a production of Sondheim’s Follies in New Jersey. Today, Mr. Koskoff bemoans Sondheim’s popularity, saying, “the public has snatched him away from us,” but he still dates his and his wife’s passion for theatergoing to this period.

Now, according to Mr. Koskoff, “living on York Street, at the edge of the Yale bubble, is the very best place for a theater buff to be.” He and his wife prefer the intimacy of Yale’s undergraduate theater to professional plays at the Yale Repertory Theater or the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. In every student show, he says, they find at least one actor’s performance worthwhile—sometimes breathtaking. Mr. Koskoff rattled off a list of names of stars to watch.

However, before I arrived at their apartment for dinner, I knew none of this. I knew only that the couple I’d seen were faithful followers of Yale’s undergraduate theater—a scene often considered insular. Undergraduate theatergoers tend to be theater people themselves, and while some plays generate considerable excitement within their community, that buzz rarely spreads across campus. True audience members—people who see plays not out of obligation to friends, but to be entertained—are rare, too.

“Oh, you didn’t have to bring flowers!” Mr. Koskoff shouted, as he opened the door to his apartment that night. But his wife would love them, he added. “Would you like a glass of bad white wine?” It’s truly awful, he said, but Mr. Koskoff used to own a bar, and when it closed, he was stuck with this. “I inherited it,” he said, sweeping me into a side room he called his study, past a spacious living room with a crowded bookcase, a massive potted rosemary plant, and coffee tables topped with David Sedaris books—and then Mr. Koskoff cut to the chase. From his tall desk chair, wine glass in hand, he looked me in the eye and said:

“I largely select shows based on people that I know, and here’s a question for you. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, you have Allison Collins [’11]—who is the best among her crop—and Hunter Wolk [’12]—and Jeremy Lloyd [’12]—how is it that someone like you, who doesn’t have many credits to your name, got such good people?”

I started to squirm and stammer out some answers: they’re my friends, it’s a fun play. But from the way he talked about Yale undergraduate theater, I knew Mr. Koskoff wouldn’t be so easily convinced of my authority. When his wife arrived, his monologue turned to the play they saw last weekend, in the theater in the basement of Morse College.

“You know,” said Mr. Koskoff, “I’d never seen Will Smith [’12] before last weekend in Julius Caesar.”

“No,” called his wife from the kitchen, “we’ve seen him in lots of things.”

The Koskoffs see plays every weekend with the help of the Web site of the Yale Drama Coalition, which offers showtimes and tickets for all undergraduate performances. “I told two or three people about it,” said Mr. Koskoff of the site, “and then thought, no, no, if all the AARP people come, they’ll have to close the shows except to Yale and Yale family. So we don’t talk much about it, but we bring people—once in a while.” They also show guests a DVD of the 2009 production of Cabaret directed by Kate Berman ’11, which Mr. Koskoff said he obtained through Berman’s mother. It’s a perennial favorite. “Everything about it is wonderful,” he said. “And Jason Perlman [’11] plays the spymaster.”

“It’s like going to Yale without the papers,” said Mrs. Koskoff, who makes a habit of seeing undergraduate singing performances as well. Mr. Koskoff occasionally sits in on movie screenings for introductory film courses, but comedy shows, he complained, are too late at night. “We still haven’t made the masters’ teas,” said his wife, “and I want to do that.”

They tried renting an apartment in New York, Mr. Koskoff explained, then settled instead for this pied-à-terre in New Haven precisely because it offers everything the big city does—except here, he crowed, they can walk everywhere. The Koskoffs used to go to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each year, but now that they’re in New Haven, “every weekend is the Edinburgh Fringe!” Mr. Koskoff and his wife can readily recall dozens of plays they’ve seen; a favorite, Amadeus, “was such a wonderful production that they could have lifted it up and taken it straight to Broadway.”

“We’ve seen such wonderful things,” cooed Mrs. Koskoff, “Only every fourth show, or fifth show is disappointing.”

“That’s not true,” interrupted Mr. Koskoff. “We’re often disappointed.” After all, his standards are quite high. He frequently emails student directors about their projects, often to complain that the plays they’ve chosen are too depressing. “For some reason, a lot of these Yale undergrads like these real downers,” he puzzled. “Did you see the play with Cooper Lewis [’11] a month ago? A virtuoso performance,” he said of Lewis—but the play, Home Free, about an incestuous brother and sister, was another downer.

Recently, Mr. Koskoff emailed Michael Knowles ’12 to ask about Phantoms Go Down, a play by Ariel Sheperd-Oppenheim ’10, which Knowles directed. “What’s the plot line of Phantoms?” Mr. Koskoff wrote simply. To Knowles’ response, Mr. Koskoff wrote: “I am a great admirer of Julie Shain’s [’13] and also of Jeremy Lloyd [’12], but my wife and I are still depressed from Cornered and Home Free, and as your show sounds like a real downer, I’ll probably pass on it.” Mr. Koskoff explained that he finds it easy to contact Yale students because of our formulaic email addresses. Last year, he emailed Elizabeth Sutton-Stone ’10, who was directing a production of Measure for Measure, to demand a reason to see yet another Shakespeare play.

Knowles’ play was one of the shows Mr. Koskoff turned down the night I had dinner with him. Instead, he chose War in Times of Love, a play directed by Danielle Tomson ’12, saying he always enjoys actors Peter Kaufman ’12 and Timmia Feldman ’12, “that little girl with the same name as you.” As Mrs. Koskoff readied herself for the Yale-Princeton Glee Club concert, Mr. Koskoff and I left to get good seats.

“When I go to Sudler shows, it’s like crashing a wonderful party,” confided Mr. Koskoff, as we walked down York Street. We entered Morse College, passing three girls in costume, and Mr. Koskoff shouted, “Are you in the play?” He found two middle-aged women outside the theater and approached them, asking: “Got someone in the show?” In fact, Mr. Koskoff was delighted to learn, one was the mother of the director, Danielle Tomson ’12. He complimented The History Boys, the last play Tomson directed, gushing: “It was the high point of last year’s theater!”

I excused myself for a moment and returned to find Mr. Koskoff rubbing elbows with another adult couple—one actor’s parents, he had discovered. We were still five minutes early, and the doors hadn’t opened. “The students always get here late,” said Mr. Koskoff, “but I always get there right on time, so they don’t give my seat away.” (Normally, house managers of Yale shows don’t close the theater’s doors until 10 or 15 minutes after the play’s scheduled start.)

As Mr. Koskoff had learned from the Yale Drama Coalition site, this was the North American premiere of a Kosovar playwright’s work—and even by Yale standards, the play, billed as a comedy, was weird. Some scenes occurred with the lights completely off. An actor dressed as a bride ran up an aisle screaming; later, she married a snake-man. There was nudity, murder, waxing of hair. Always, a television flickered in the background, showing singers, war footage, burning film. It was a typical example of the undergraduate theater that Mr. Koskoff called “too cutting-edge” for his tastes. 

At one point, an actor addressed the audience, and coming close to where we were sitting, she looked directly at Mr. Koskoff. I snuck a glance at his face. While another watcher might have looked away uncomfortably, Mr. Koskoff was holding her gaze contentedly—unfazed. He had seen it all before.

As the play ended, Mr. Koskoff turned to me. “I don’t know where they get off calling it a comedy,” he said. A true critic, Mr. Koskoff respects the efforts of these undergraduates enough to expect professionalism, while parents and friends will simply smile unconditionally and congratulate the cast. Audience members with an understanding and appreciation as acute as Mr. Koskoff’s are unusual at these plays. As he and I stood to go, the producer asked the audience to recycle our programs, returning them to a bin for use the next night.

In spite of his critique, Mr. Koskoff ignored the producer’s request. When we left, he was still holding his program. I asked if he would keep it. “I always keep them,” he said, and we walked out of the Morse College basement, programs in hand.

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