On This Fatherless Father's Day

The play I almost saw was pretty much about life itself—we appear, we vanish, and yet something of us survives

Dad's birthday, 2014

The play I wanted to see on Father's Day was Jewish and queer and complicated and surprising. At least, that's what I heard. I only got close enough to hang out in the lobby, peer into the theater and imagine myself slipping into that rich, expectant darkness.

The whole escapade was a long shot. After hearing an ecstatic review of the play from a friend who'd seen it the night before, I hopped a bus to New York for the final performance of an already-extended, sold-out-for-weeks production in a 140-seat theater. I power-walked 14 blocks to the box office, where a beleaguered-looking woman added my name to the list of hopefuls waiting for standby tickets. There were eight people ahead of me.

My father would never have done anything so impulsive. He'd have reserved seats two months in advance, scoped out the most efficient subway route from uptown and pored over Zagat to find a congenial restaurant for a pre-matinee brunch.

But my friend, as well as multiple critics, had called "Indecent" enthralling, heartbreaking and profound, and seeing it (or at least, attempting to see it) seemed as good a way as any to mark my second fatherless Father's Day.

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In the big, buzzing scheme of the cosmos, mine was a minor gamble. What, after all, did I have to lose? Nothing but the better part of a sun-drenched Sunday and my $32 Megabus fare. For 40 minutes, I hovered near the box office window, locking eyes now and then with Ms. Beleaguered, trying to look both plucky and patient. The ticket-holding patrons filled a Venn diagram of My People—Jews, lesbians and Jewishlesbians. None of the men were my father.

The play I almost saw on Father's Day, according to the framed article I practically memorized while lingering among lobby-bound hopefuls, was based on "God of Vengeance," a 1907 play by Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch. It was performed across Europe before it scandalized New York audiences (with a lesbian kiss, the first on Broadway) in 1923 and prompted the arrest of the entire ensemble on obscenity charges.

The play closed. But the possibility lived.

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I wanted to see it—felt hungry to see it, in fact, not just to hear about it or scroll through online adulation—because in theater, there is no replay button. This performance—the particular Rorschach of sweat on an actor's back; the precise inflection of the argument; this gesture; that silence—will never occur again. These are human beings, responding to each other and to their audience, conjuring a slightly different iteration every time.

And "Indecent," from what I gleaned, is partly about the conundrum of live performance. Of life, actually. We appear, we vanish, and yet something of us survives. Gone, not gone: the original play and the trial, its brittle transcripts long-archived in a library, now braided into a bold story for a broader-thinking time.

Nine, it turned out, was not my lucky number. A few seats did open up; a few names got crossed off the waiting list. "Sorry, this is the last one," said Ms. Beleaguered, before hurrying a woman in a green dress to her spot just as the house lights dimmed.

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Outside, in Union Square, the sun was hard as a cymbal. Hare Krishnas in apricot robes jangled tambourines, contrapuntal to the rap music pulsing from a nearby iPhone. A bare-chested man jumped nimble double-dutch. A kid with beet-hued dreadlocks perched on a stone ledge. A woman in a black headscarf and aviator sunglasses handed out copies of the Quran. A teenager managed to text and skateboard without cracking his phone … or his skull.

I sat there for a while, watching people stream up the subway stairs: weary, eager, uncertain. Someone had chalked the entire text of the First Amendment onto the paving stones, with the Sixth Commandment—"Thou shalt not kill"—scrawled underneath.

I wished I'd seen the play.

I wished I could call my dad and tell him about it.

He was no gambler, my father, unless you count an occasional bet on the horse races. But he did take risks: venturing from Brooklyn to newspaper jobs in Augusta, Georgia, and Corpus Christi, Texas. Tapping a smart woman on the hip at a Philadelphia press party, then asking her out on a date that cost him a week's salary. For more than 50 years, my father wrote and wrote and wrote, gadfly to the powerful and ally to the powerless, offering his rat-a-tat take on the world of professional sports, until the worst kind of luck landed him in the hospital bed where, nine weeks later, he died.

What endures? The art we make, the laws we write (and breach), the buildings we keep urging to impossible heights, the light that insists its way through?

I'm left with this: My father loved the theater. He loved to walk from West 56th Street to the farmers' market in Union Square. He loved me. His pluck made my life possible—and I don't mean only that his roguish move at that press party led, eventually, to my conception. I mean that when I became a VISTA volunteer and moved across the country, when I came out, when I fell in love with a woman and when we decided to have a baby, I walked the outskirts of a platform winched up by my father's integrity and courage.

Now the Hare Krishnas reach their jangling crescendo, and a woman carries a tiny girl whose dress looks like the fluted paper of a cupcake. Taxis careen around corners. A woman in black lipstick wants $10 to read tarot.

The play I came so close to seeing on my second fatherless Father's Day might have helped me hold paradox in both hands: This moment is ash. This moment could reverberate for lifetimes.

In the southwest corner of Union Square is a fountain that barely earns its name—a near-static pool, really, with water burping weakly from a pipe that must be half-clogged with God knows what. Bloated cigarette butts and a slashed plastic cup swim in the grimy water. I'm thinking mosquitoes. I'm thinking Lyme disease and Zika. I'm thinking standing water on an 88-degree day is a bad idea.

But then I notice pennies freckling the bottom of the pool. Before I head back to the Megabus and my sweetheart and our daughter on this fatherless Father's Day, I reach for my wallet, toss in a slim copper and watch its ripple. Because you never know.

Tags: family