Anything about theater reviews must start with The New York Times as the only place that can make a difference at the box office between a hit and a flop. Which brings me to a dinner my wife and I had with Elaine May and her partner Stanley Donen, both lovely people, and both execrating the theater reviews in the Times, at that time by Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, though it could have been just as easily anyone else. The argument was that these reviewers couldn’t write, which I disputed.
My point was that they could write as far as style and perhaps wit were concerned, but there remained the matter of content, the matter of taste. They were chosen for how they wrote rather than what they wrote, something the editors could see without seeing the shows. They saw clever writing, but most of them had not seen the shows. Hence writing that could as easily overestimate as underestimate. The reviewers were expected to be a few times positive, even if their material was consistently undeserving. My question was why reviewers approve of, even extol, manifestly terrible:shows such a Adam Rapp’s dependably dreadful “The Sound Inside,” which Jesse Green of the Times labeled sublime, and similar things were said in other publications. This even for a thing that struck me as preposterously pretentious, illogical and even ludicrous. But who am I to contradict the Times?
The problem in the greater circulation dailies, though not exclusively there, is incapability of justly stern judgment, sometimes indeed stinking to please. There are several possible reasons (though not so much at the Times), the most obvious being that nobody reads reviews at this time when many reviewers of all disciplines are being dumped as unnecessary. But a favorable review, deserved or not, echoes propitiously at the box office. An unfavorable review might alienate readers, to say nothing of producers, nowadays required in large numbers to foot the cost for even a modest show.
More profoundly, Americans like to “accentuate the positive.” There is in them a basic goodwill that tends to meet forgivingly even the expensiveness of today’s tickets by those who can still afford them. Make them feel that is, never mind think. I have seldom before heard so much laughter, so much ready applause, or seen so much indiscriminate standing and ovating, as I encounter nowadays. Part of it is that if someone spent that much money, he or she will persuade themselves to have had a good time come hell or high water. But much of it also is benightedness, to use a milder term for stupidity. It also reflects the reviewer’s captatio benevolentiae aimed at the employer and the frequently reiterated need to sell the paper, starting with the all-important advertisers. This is especially the case at some very shaky publications.
Important, too, are so-called drama queens, who expect published confirmation for their lightly earned personal enthusiasm. The great critic Kenneth Tynan spoke of two kinds of prevalent wit—and presumably two kinds of theatergoers--Jewish and homosexual.
Some things don’t change. Trash like “Slave Play” and “The Sound Inside” caters to known influenceability. By the way, what does the latter title have to do with the content? The script repeats that title in block capitals at one point twelve times, without having to do with anything—not even specifying the speaker. For even such plays, American hits automatically generate European productions I can’t tell with how much success. I wonder whether it was always so. But European hits tend almost invariably to come to Broadway, usually from England or Ireland, e.g., “The Ferryman” and “Betrayal,” and make it on Broadway. There are now, however, for whatever reason, few translated imports from France.
The itinerary has reversed. It used to be from stage to screen, now it is mostly from screen to stage, often as a musical. Two of our best musicals, “The Band’s Visit” and “Tootsie,” are stage versions of cinematic hits, the one from an Israeli movie, the other from long ago Hollywood. The Broadway version of “Visit” closed already after a goodly run, at first Off Broadway. It starred Katrina Lenk, one of the most attractive and talented actresses of our time.
I will list here, with one exception, only the still running shows I have really liked, starting with the aforementioned ”Tootsie.“ Ain’t Too Proud,” a tribute to The Temptations” is good when singing and dancing, paltry when attempting a story. “Bella Bella,” Harvey Fierstein’s very funny solo tribute to Bella Abzug and himself. ”Betrayal,” Harold Pinter at his infrequent best, starring the wonderful Zawe Ashton. The bilngual “Fiddler on the Roof, in Hebrew and English. “Linda Vista,” a serious comedy by Tracy Letts, unfortunately closing soon. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” despite a devastating review by Kyle Smith in the September New Criterion. “The Prom,” a delightful musical that flopped in spite of an epochal performance by Brooks Ashmanskas. There are also a couple of shows to come, which I haven’t yet seen.
As usual, the season will have had a couple of deserved and a few more undeserved winners, par for the course. More amazing perhaps is the success of such trash as “Slave Show” and “The Sound Inside,” whose worthlessness I cannot often enough proclaim. About some coming shows, I will most likely write in a future blog entry.
Until then, let’s have a pleasant autumn nontheatrical calendar season, the best time of year New York has to offer.