Quentin, the Dancin’ Fool of New York

Quentin Tarantino closed his eyes and gave himself over to K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.” China Club’s dance floor was full on the night of Sunday, April 5, and the deejay was pushing the crowd to a peak of disco-era euphoria. Actress Rosie Perez, in a miniskirt, go-go boots and skin-tight top, faced one of the club’s organ-rattling sound system speakers and re-created her Do the Right Thing dance solo. Mr. Tarantino, meanwhile, was in full Travolta. Dressed entirely in black, he had bounded onto the floor with his personal publicist, the memorably named Bumble Ward. Now, as she orbited around him, Mr. Tarantino pumped his fists, bobbed his head, swung his sandbag of an ass and smiled the steam-shovel smile of a guy who’s got life dicked.

The crowd picked up on Mr. Tarantino’s vibe and moved closer. A gaggle of attractive teenage girls danced at the perimeter of the director and his publicist, hoping to get his attention. One young babe with a laminate around her neck shimmied up to Mr. Tarantino and began shouting something in his ear until Mr. Tarantino threw his head back and opened the Leno jaw–the international sign for a Big Laugh, though the music swallowed any sound that may have escaped.

The deejay segued into McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and then Mr. Tarantino’s longtime producer, Lawrence Bender, was on the floor, his arms raised in a disco wave. Ms. Ward squealed. Mr. Tarantino was beading up with sweat. Ms. Perez was still romancing the stereo speaker.

A few minutes later, as Mr. Tarantino toweled off his bristly soul patch in the V.I.P. area that had been reserved for him, The Transom asked if he had seen any reviews of his performance. Nope. “I have no idea,” he said. “They come out tomorrow.”

The following day, Mr. Tarantino would get his sandbag kicked by the New York media. (“Quentin Tarantino … acts like a dog,” wrote Newsweek ‘s Jack Kroll. “He’s having fun at public expense.”) But on the opening night of his Broadway debut, an entirely different message was being sent to him. “Clever, arrogant girls must be punished,” Mr. Tarantino-as-Harry Roat tells Marisa Tomei’s character, Susy Hendrix, toward the play’s climax. He might as well have been talking into a mirror. For having set the film industry on its ear with Pulp Fiction , Mr. Tarantino has turned his resulting fame into opportunities to pursue his first love: acting. The resulting round of snickers and eye rolls that followed Mr. Tarantino’s appearances on Saturday Night Live , Margaret Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl and in his film From Dusk Till Dawn did little to discourage him from making his most clever and arrogant move yet: to head for New York City, hometown of snarky media, and to make a beeline for Broadway, hallowed ground of acting, where the profession works without a net.

That Mr. Tarantino was roundly punished by the guardians of theater (at least Variety was kind) is hardly surprising. But the fact is, the reviews will not make any difference. Before the curtain went up on April 5, Wait Until Dark had already racked up $3 million in advance ticket sales, enough to insure that the play would complete its scheduled 16-week run. “We’re all set,” said the production’s spokesman, James Morrison, who added that April 6, the day the reviews were published, was the highest-grossing day for ticket sales. (At the China Club party, Mr. Tarantino was also heard telling someone that he would be in New York until Labor Day, which suggests that the run will be extended. He’s rented a place in the West Village. Apparently, he likes Two Boots pizza.)

Mr. Tarantino has chosen to make his Broadway debut at an opportune time. While Frank Rich toils away on his New York Times Op-Ed column, Broadway’s producers have found a way to make their plays reviewproof. One of those ways involves taking a cultural phenomenon, such as Mr. Tarantino, whose film work has built large reserves of fans, and then bringing him to the stage.

Broadway was once a test of one’s acting chops. There is nothing between the audience and the stage. No additional takes. No snazzy camera techniques. No editors. But the producers have tweaked that concept for the 90’s. Today, theater is a test of one’s celebrity: A couple days after she won her Oscar for best actress, TV star Helen Hunt announced that she’d be doing Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center this summer. Put Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees , Whoopi Goldberg in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Mr. Tarantino in Wait Until Dark , and the audiences come, not to witness great acting, but to experience their favorite celebrity with one less barrier between them.

So, reviews be damned; Mr. Tarantino’s celebrity has not only provided him with the opportunity to trod the Broadway boards, it has helped fuel a ticket-buying spree that insures that Miramax’s wonder boy will act again.

Anyone who read the reviews of Wait Until Dark might have envisioned a wakelike opening night, but that was hardly the case. It was Ms. Tomei who got the standing ovation when the lights went up, but Mr. Tarantino had a solid cheering section that included heavy representation from the Miramax Films mafia. Co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein were there, as was Harvey’s wife, Eve Weinstein. Mr. Bender contributed some war-whooping. And Jackie Brown Oscar nominee Robert Forster flew in from Los Angeles with his daughter Kathrine to support the guy who had resurrected his career. As he made his way out of the theater, Mr. Forster gave Mr. Tarantino’s performance a thumbs up, calling him “a double threat,” as in director and actor, “a triple threat if you consider his appreciation of music.” Mr. Forster also said that he had seen his director backstage before the show and that Mr. Tarantino was “cool as a cucumber.”

The Weinsteins and bunch of other well-wishers made their way around a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle that had been parked in front of the theater, being that VW was a sponsor of the after-party, and either headed backstage to congratulate the cast or next door to China Club. By the time Mr. Weinstein made it to the club, he had worked up his sound bite. “He was great. She was great,” he said with certitude, although he allowed, “I was really nervous for him.” Mr. Bender’s response was virtually the same.

Musician-composer (and now screenwriter) Danny Elfman, who mingled among the first-nighters, told The Transom that Mr. Tarantino gave a “more controlled” performance than he was expecting. “I thought he’d be more over the top,” said Mr. Elfman. “It was a pleasant surprise.” He added that he didn’t know why he was surprised. Maybe, he conceded, it had something to do with From Dusk Till Dawn .

Mr. Tarantino arrived at the club about a half-hour later and, after running a gantlet of TV and radio reporters, he took the stage that abuts China Club’s second-story dance space and did an interview with a reporter from the E! channel. He then waded into a mass of well-wishers who wanted them to autograph their Playbill s or congratulate him. That included revered Broadway actress Bernadette Peters, who once again uttered the word “Great!” and introduced the beaming Mr. Tarantino to her husband. Eventually, a handler extracted Mr. Tarantino and led him to his V.I.P. space, which was reserved with a black placard bearing his name. Mr. Tarantino’s designated area was all the way across the room and relatively intimate compared to the huge space set off for Ms. Tomei, the other cast members and producers. “Welcome home,” said the woman as Mr. Tarantino stepped behind the ropes, and a burly bodyguard in a loud tie sealed off the entrance with his large frame. The soundtrack to Pulp Fiction was playing. Waiting for the actor were the Weinsteins, Mr. Bender, journalist Lynn Hirschberg, Ms. Ward and various other friends.

The bodyguard repeatedly stepped aside as publicist Bobby Zarem brought actress Faye Dunaway up to meet Mr. Tarantino, comedian Ben Stiller popped in for a brief visit, and co-star Stephen Lang brought by his son Danny.

Mr. Tarantino eventually emerged to do another round of interviews with what seemed like, The Transom excepted, a small army of young flirtatious women reporters, all clutching minicassette recorders. For them, Mr. Tarantino shed his menacing character (the soul patch was still there, as were some badass sideburns) and turned on his puppy-dog charm. “I didn’t really have first-night jitters,” he told one reporter. “I don’t get nervous about artistic things.” To another, Mr. Tarantino explained his character. “Some people are born with a tiger in them,” he said. “Harry Roat isn’t afraid of the tiger. He’s got the tiger on a leash.”

The Transom asked Mr. Tarantino why he was so interested in the antique medium of theater when he had already made such a splash in the very current medium of film. Acting on the stage, said Mr. Tarantino, was “about as purist as you can get.” Then, strangely, he stopped himself. “That’s not why,” he said. “They offered me the part. And it was a great part.”

The part of Harry Roat, and Mr. Tarantino’s performance of it, is certainly not a part on which the failure of Wait Until Dark can be pinned. Mr. Tarantino may need to put a leash not on his tiger, but on his accents. On opening night, his impersonation of an Italian restaurateur sounded more like The Simpsons ‘ Indian convenience store operator, Apu. But otherwise, Mr. Tarantino is not on stage for dangerous chunks of time. (Although he shares top billing with Ms. Tomei, his part seemed smaller than Mr. Lang’s.) The thing is, the intricate plot devices of Wait Until Dark do not hold up in the kind of cynical culture that has made Scream and its sequel huge money orders. The realization that comes early on in the play is that Ms. Tomei’s character could just leave her apartment and stop the madness.

Asked if he thought the media would be gunning for him given the Boston reviews, Mr. Tarantino went into professional ballplayer-speak. “I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I never read any of those reviews.”

There were some civilians there in the crush of reporters, namely Kensey Cone and Katie Duke, 17-year-old twins from Thomasville, Ga. Their theater arts class was visiting the Great White Way, and they had scored free tickets to the opening-night performance and then crashed the party for Mr. Tarantino’s Broadway debut. Now, face to face with Mr. Tarantino, Ms. Cone told him that her mother wouldn’t yet let her rent Pulp Fiction , but that she was a fan. Mr. Tarantino gave the two teens a considerable amount of time (and a solution to their problem: Get a friend to rent it for them). Having retreated to the dance floor but still high on their encounter, the Georgia girls (who had somehow managed to see Reservoir Dogs ) unhesitatingly agreed that Wait Until Dark was better than Titanic . “He’s gorgeous!” Ms. Cone said of Mr. Tarantino.

“He’s raw!” said Ms. Duke, by which, she explained, that Mr. Tarantino does his own thing and “doesn’t give a shit” what others might think.

They didn’t let him out of their sight after that. They were half his age, but he was a man for their time. A sweet, romantic guy who could balance love and violent torture in a screenplay (see True Romance , Pulp Fiction ). A guy who gets panned for his movie and TV performances and then goes to Broadway. A guy who seemed deliriously happy–happier than he ever seems at his film events, said one Tarantino observer–as he flailed his long limbs on the dance floor.

The girls had plenty of competition that night, though. Everyone seemed to want a piece of their guy. And not long after midnight, Ms. Tomei, in a glittering backless dress, beckoned for Mr. Tarantino to join her up on the China Club stage for a dance. It was almost 1 A.M. The joint was emptying out, but a handful of people gathered at the lip of the stage to watch. For a long time, Mr. Tarantino and Ms. Tomei danced and talked and laughed against the fake backdrop of stars and the club’s neon sign. Up on the stage. They owned it. When she, too, eventually drifted away to talk to friends, Mr. Tarantino remained, alone. The deejay had put on some electronic mariachi music, and the black-clad former video clerk, having just made himself available to the theater-viewing public for the first time, closed his eyes and found the groove, dancing with himself.

The Transom can be reached by confidential e-mail at nyotransom@aol.com.

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