My Year of Yes: Looking for the Weird in New York=Sleep No More

I wanted to do something weird and offbeat in New York, and one suggestion that came up a few times on TripAdvisor was “Sleep No More.”

I looked into it, while trying to avoid spoilers.

Basically, I saw that you had to chase actors up and down a five-story warehouse in Chelsea, following the story of Macbeth. Most people loved it. A few people hated it, but they sounded like cranks. So, okay. I decided to buy a ticket.

The next problem was that the evening show was sold out except for a 6:30 dinner and a show. But it wasn’t your usual dinner and a show. No, you paid an extra $10 for the opportunity to purchase a prix fixe meal. Like most things in New York, it seemed designed to separate me from my money.

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I compensated by walking to the McKittrick Hotel. So, after waking up at 5:45 a.m., swimming, doing a photo shoot, driving 1.5 hours to our hotel, and walking 50 minutes to the Brooke Atkinson Theatre for “After Midnight,” I walked another 50 minutes to my next show, through the wind. So I was already done by the time I arrived.

I walked up to the dinner part, which was in a separate building, and chatted a little with the elevator guy. Hey, I’ve got to get my $10 worth of entertainment. I rode up, with old-fashioned music and the elevator guy twirling a pen, and stepped out on an upper floor. There were greeters. They’d turned the right side into a dining room with a live stage where musicians played. On the left, it looked like a train box dining car, which I loved. So I took a good look around (and used the bathroom), but since I was late and refused to spend any more money, I rode right back down the elevator, choosing instead to start the show right at 7 p.m.

We lined up. They swiped our ID’s. I’d heard about the mandatory $4 coat check, but just as I passed over my fleece jacket and coat, the guy mentioned that the bag check is mandatory, but the coat check isn’t. I took my coats right back, even though he warned me that it was “boiling upstairs, and most people come back down to check their coat later.”

Screw it. I’m usually cold. I kept my coats.

We were welcomed into a bar, where lovely ladies invited us to buy absinthe, “my love.” I sat in a chair and waited for the show to start.

Eventually, a guy made an announcement, and I headed off to the side, where we were handed a mask, advised to be silent and attend the show solo.

The cargo elevator was so massive, they stopped at three floors to let us off. Since I was crowded in the back, I got off at the last floor. Nearly everyone turned left, so I turned right and picked my way through the cemetery, which was mildly creepy, and came upon a woman rocking back and forth violently in bed.

In the massive bedchambers, I watched her rock back and forth, glanced at the photocopies of letters and started to read one, but it was too dim. The woman started rubbing “blood” off of the bathtub, so I knew she was Lady Macbeth, but I lost interest and started exploring.

Pretty soon, I got shut into a room with two actors who swung a lamp violently back and forth, almost hitting us and each other. The two other audience members and I backed against the wall, trying to get out of the way, while they seemed to interrogate each other, whipping the lamp to and fro. Then one of them opened the door, and it was over.

I also met a bunch of guys playing cars, and periodically, one of them  would nail a card to the wall, and then they’d start playing cards again.

I set off again, exploring various floors. Woods, which I recognized as Birnam Woods. And the best set, a dormitory with six wrought iron beds painted white, with crosses and books by the bed and a bedpan under each bed, lit with a soft blue light. It gave me a shock. This is what medicine used to look like: the cold, isolating ward rooms. The confinement of the tuberculosis sanatorium.

In the left corner stood a desk. They had taped tongue depressors, swabs, and pills on the wall and on the desk in an eerie display. Someone had recently passed by, so the rocking chair was still rocking. I sat down in the chair and opened the drawers, since I knew that was part of the set, and a man in a white mask loomed to my left: he and two others had seen me and assumed I was an actor, so they’d come around to watch me.

I left the room, turned the corner, and found six bathtubs. Two of them had uniforms carefully laid out inside them, mimicking a person. The middle one on the right contained a few inches of water, but I found it less eerie than the dormitory. And I was getting tired of looking at sets. I wanted some action.

Then I heard a voice. And since the audience is silent, I knew it had to be an actor. I followed the voice, and Lady Macbeth ran into the dormitory. She kicked a bed pan across the room, sobbing. A nurse came and consoled her, and led her to the bath. Lady MacBeth climbed into the tub, stark naked, and began rubbing her face. Slowly, she rubbed blood all over her face.

I’ve seen this movie, I thought, but I followed her back down into her bedroom, where she danced about, eventually climbing into a box-like frame and dancing some more. And then I had my revelation.

I wish someone had told me this was a contemporary dance piece.

There was almost no dialogue, so forget about any witty Shakespearean soliloquy. The music was loud and piped through the entire warehouse, sometimes light, sometimes forboding. The sets were cool, especially the dormitory, but I’m not going to pay $110 to wander around a nice building. And the story…I’m sure there was some sort of story, but I’m not convinced that was the main point. The main point was to run around them and chase them as they danced.

If I’d known that, I might have sat tight with Lady Macbeth, or waited for the card players to play out. Instead, I was subconsciously searching for the story: the words, the intrigue, the excitement, the PLOT, for heaven’s sake. Instead, I watched Lady Macbeth frame herself in her box, and wondered if I should seek out another dancer.

And then I realized that a maskless man had entered the room. He stared at Lady Macbeth, and the crowd parted before him. Eventually, he ran up to her and they danced together, on the bed, so passionate that part of me wanted to look away (and the other part of me stared).

Slowly, their dance changed, and he refused to look her in the eye and refused to kiss her, falling out of love with her in front of our eyes. She had him zip her into an evening gown, and they each left the room. A few people followed Lady Macbeth, but 90 percent of the crowd waded after Macbeth.

I must have trotted after 50 people, tracing Macbeth through the graveyard. I liked the part where he mimed hanging himself, which gave a perfect foreshadowing for the ending. He moved all around, so at one point, he was dancing right beside me. But I hated the feeling of being a sheep, trailing Macbeth in a crowd, so I broke off and followed the more minor characters.

The dancing was fairly magnificent. One guy climbed a stone wall, wedging himself in a kind of alleyway up to the ceiling, using his feet. The woman in the green dress, who looked like her breasts were about to burst of her dress (in a good way), did a lovely dance with a man in a sitting room, where she climbed on his shoulders and made her way almost up to the ceiling. I also loved the telephone booth dance, where two guys did a kind of S&M number (fully clothed)—just one was clearly dominant. They danced on top of bookshelves, wine racks, tables with full place settings—anything that got them up in the air. At one point, one guy was walking across the hallway, holding a door, and he had a showdown with the maid, who ended up jumping up and running across the door. Absolutely amazing.

But there was a serious problem, following the minor characters: they didn’t do as much.

I saw two of the dances twice. I thought, did I accidentally end up watching the second show, and they’re repeating everything? And then I realized, no. The minor characters just don’t have as much stuff to do in three hours, so they have to repeat it. Crap.

And no one can dance that vigorously for three hours, so occasionally, I’d end up climbing up and down stairs and into various rooms—only to see a guy combing his hair. Or the pregnant woman playing with baby clothes. Twice. (I really wasn’t crazy about the pregnant woman’s role. I thought a lot of her dances ended up with her or her partner’s hand on her belly and them looking soulful. Not too interesting.)

A third problem with following the minor characters was that a lot of them died. So you had to follow an ever-dwindling number of characters anyway.

A dance I really enjoyed was when they were in the ballroom. I loved the way they were so animated, and seemed to be talking to each other and really enjoying each other’s company. I could hardly keep my eyes off Lady Macbeth that time, she was so arresting. Then the music started to grind and pulse, and they all scattered again.

By 9:30, I seriously had sentimental thoughts about regular theatre, where I could sit in a comfortable chair and they had to bring the story to me, instead of me trekking up and down stairs and maybe losing the actors altogether or happening upon the boring bits. I considered leaving. I also sat in the banquet hall/ballroom for a few minutes, figuring that they’d probably do the finale here, and then I could just watch it, instead of potentially useless walking. I was certainly glad that Matt hadn’t come, because he would’ve hated it. I like the arts, but I was fed up.

I did pick myself up and follow people, but I just sat down at every opportunity. (That surgical saying: never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never lie down when you can sleep.) At one point, an actor grabbed a woman’s hand and they rushed off, so we all tried to follow, but it turned out to be a dead end with two out of four doors locked. Sometimes, you just didn’t get to see the show, even if you were in the right place and almost the right time. (I did admire the room of hanging pheasants, though. And earlier, the dental chair with a lampshade made of dental X-rays. I thought the neck film was upside down, though, and thought about rearranging it, before I realized they wouldn’t appreciate my blow for medical correctness.)

Eventually, we did recongregate in the banquet hall/ballroom, and the finale was somewhat eerie, fascinating, frustrating, and heartrending—kind of like the whole night.

Overall, this was my only single experience in New York that ranged from two to five stars. I think I’m glad I went, but it definitely wasn’t easy, and you’d have to appreciate contemporary dance. I suggest following Macbeth or another major character for at least part of the night. And, of course, wear comfortable shoes.