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And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades…

Who…from their misty jaws

Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air.

—William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 1

There is no shortage of circumstances that can ruin an evening at the theater. Traffic jams, lost tickets, cruddy seats, or a boring date can make even the liveliest farce seem endless. So when my friend Rebecca and I waltzed into the Warner Theatre the other night—on time and on her dime—I counted myself a lucky man. Unfortunately, that feeling lasted about as long as a Junior Mint. I could not have predicted that a neighbor’s foul breath would toxify an otherwise lovely night.

Act 1 of The Foreigner was a joy. You can never have too much comedy in your life, and this play offered more than most. During intermission, Rebecca and I stretched our legs and headed to the lobby for a snack. On the way back we somehow switched seats. I thought nothing of it until the lights began to dim for Act 2.

With the theater hushed and dark, my senses came alive, and before a word was uttered onstage, I felt a light wind on my cheek. It couldn’t be an air vent, I thought. We were located 100 feet from the nearest wall. Besides, the air slapping my face was not conditioned, per se. It smelled like my kitchen’s garbage disposal. “Something stinks,” I whispered to Rebecca, who chuckled with what appeared to be sympathy. “I smelled it too when I was sitting there,” she replied, “so I leaned toward you.”

The culprit had to be the man seated next to me. He was the only person close enough to so thoroughly befoul my airspace. But I couldn’t understand how his fetid exhalations were making their way to my nose, given that we both faced the stage. How could he redirect his breath 90 degrees to the left?

One look at his mouth explained everything. The poor man had an overbite capable not only of popping bottle caps but possibly ripping the lid off a peanut-butter jar. This wasn’t an overbite; it was an überbite. It also prevented him from closing his mouth, which left him with a perpetual mouth-drying, bacteria-breeding smile. When he exhaled, I surmised, the air passed over his lower palate and then ricocheted off his crooked upper teeth in my direction.

Having grown up with a beaverish overbite myself, I have a soft spot for, even an attraction to, people who never got theirs corrected. But after one whiff I was immune to this gentleman’s bucktoothed charm.

I tried to avoid the toxic cloud. I sank down in my seat and leaned toward Rebecca, but doing so merely blocked my view of the stage. I thought about offering him a mint (I’d bought a box during intermission), but couldn’t summon the nerve. So I spent most of Act 2 covering my face, sticking my thumb in my right nostril, or holding my breath. “He is killing me,” I whined again to Rebecca, who laughed uncontrollably. I began to wonder whether our inadvertent switcheroo of seats was, well, advertent. To make matters worse, my seatmate developed a habit of turning toward me when a line of dialogue particularly tickled him, and then exuberantly laughing in my face. I had met the enemy, and he was giggling.

I tell this story not to demonize my silt-tongued neighbor. Had we been separated by a glass partition, I’m certain I would have found him quite endearing. My point is that I cannot be the only person in this city who has encountered bad breath at the theater. According to the League of Washington Theatres, nearly 2.1 million visitors attended local productions in 1996. There must be other victims out there.

If I weren’t such a fanatic about my own breath, I might not feel entitled to express my outrage over bad breath. But I brush and gargle as often as some people pee. (I’ve always said that one of God’s greatest oversights was not giving us naturally minty breath.) And as my mooching friends well know, I am never without a pack of Trident on my person. So in the tradition of vainglorious victims everywhere, I decided to interrogate the bejesus out of some of Washington’s finest thee-ay-tuhs.

Like many journalists, I have a sort of “sixth sense” about interviewing. It was on the strength of this sense that I chose to call the Signature Theatre’s Paul Gamble first and ask him about its bad-breath policy. “The ironic thing about it,” he told me kindly, “is that I lost my sense of smell a couple of years ago…so I wouldn’t be of much help to a patron having that kind of trouble.” Gamble did say that if a customer were to complain about a neighbor’s breath, Signature would offer the “offended patron” a new seat. “In a theater,” he said, “you’re trapped.” Gamble’s own pet peeve falls on the aural side of the distraction spectrum: noisy candy-unwrapping. “The little crinkling of paper can drive you nuts,” he says.

I had a little better luck with the Warner Theatre’s Diane Thompson, who admitted to having a particularly “sensitive nose” herself. Thompson recently gave each member of her staff an Amway Sweet Shots breath saver, with instructions to use it on themselves whenever necessary. But she is not about to spray a customer. In situations involving “body odor” or drunkenness, for example—which occur often, she says—Thompson and her staff instead mount a sort of hostage rescue operation, where they quietly remove every person seated around the offender.

Kennedy Center spokeswoman Tiki Davies was more demure on the topic of human funk. She did, however, confirm that the KenCen offers its patrons free Halls cough drops, a fact of which many of you Brahmins are undoubtedly already aware. But did you know that under the Silent Nights Symphonies Program, the Warner-Lambert Co. provides the cough drops to the Kennedy Center at no charge? Ha! I bet you didn’t. Nor are you likely aware that Halls’ wax-paper wrappers were specially designed to open quietly.

Warner-Lambert spokesman Jeff Baum said Halls can serve the dual purposes of suppressing coughs and covering up bad breath. Even though Halls is “not positioned as a breath-freshening product” in the U.S., Baum said, “the eucalyptus may mask certain odors.” In fact, in South and Central America, “Halls is thought of as a refreshing candy.” But Davies emphatically denied that the Kennedy Center provides cough drops for any purpose other than to suppress hacking. “It’s a cough drop, not a breath mint,” she insisted.

I suppose that if the Kennedy Center were really serious about eliminating noise in its theaters, its managers might ask Warner-Lambert to donate another one of its products: Zantac.

I asked Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre to weigh in on the Überbite Debacle, and he noted that the Shakespeare Theatre does provide free cough drops to theatergoers, but just to prevent coughing. “I never thought about leaving out Binaca,” he kidded. “Maybe [theaters] should just put parsley in their lobbies.”

Still, Kahn himself claimed ignorance of such problems. “I’ve never personally experienced bad breath at the theater,” he said. “Maybe you get more intimate [with] the people next to you.”CP