Sunday, October 27, 2019

Critics and the (Un)criticized



One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot. That they are not united in their opinions is ascribable to the Latin saying: quot homines, tot sententiae. I myself prefer being considered a creep, but that is what you get for having what Vladimir Nabokov called “Strong Opinions.” It is odd that in a country so wallowing in negativity, starting with mass shootings and climaxing with Trump, such an unim-portant matter as theater criticism should generate so much hostility. The only target patently more important is lead in the drinking water.

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.

27 comments:

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  2. I checked in just now to see if you'd covered "The Sound Inside", since my wife and I went to see it a few weeks ago on the strength of Jesse Green's review, and both left the theatre in silence, grinding our teeth, both noting that we could never get those two, or actually FOUR hours of our lives back. I can't even say the acting of Mary Louise Parker was any good, because it would take more than an actress to redeem an irredeemable script. I had never seen anything of Rapp's before, but I'd recently read the Isherwood piece on why he wanted to be relieved of seeing any of Rapp's plays before, so I was doubly intrigued. What was it about this play that was so off-putting, and "distancing", and finally, insufferable, a word both wife and I came up with independently. The cancer theme, ringing like a big hollow bell from beginning to end, to lend it Significance? The shallow academic name-dropping of everyone from Dostoyevsky to David Foster Wallace to lend it Hip Cred? Possibly worst of all, the facile, dishonest device by Rapp of what can only be called "self-narration" delivered to the audience by Parker as if we were confidantes in her own dissociation from herself, or were being asked to sympathize with her being abandoned as a credible character by the author himself. I can't go on---this play really infuriated me, and proved further that New York critics, with few exceptions, are simply afraid of being critics. Sarah Holdren as of a few weeks ago, is off doing her own theater-making thing in Ohio, and won't be reviewing plays in NY again, maybe ever. She was the only one I grew to trust, and boy, did she write well, and sharply, and passionately! While I'm at it, I must recommend Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons, just extended two weeks to November 10th I believe. THAT is a real play!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for mentioning Sarah Holdren, she is an excellent writer. Here is a link to her work at the Vulture website:

      https://www.vulture.com/author/sara-holdren/

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  4. My best friend and I auditioned for the same part in our high school play. The role was a Snidely Whiplash type character. I thought I was better, but he got the part. Our director wanted Snidely to have an English accent. I was a better actor, but my friend had a better accent. I became the understudy and also joined the crew. I helped build the sets, and I ran the lighting. Mostly, I took over as the play's production designer. The drama teacher was the director, but she was busy, so she let me do just about everything.

    My primary assistant running all this stuff was the girlfriend of my friend who got the part. We had to spend hours together working on everything. I noticed she started rubbing up against me all the time and calling me for no reason. She was two years younger than we were but super good looking. I fought her off, though. I didn't want to cheat on my best friend.

    Okay, now it's opening night (we had three performances). All of a sudden, my friend starts to get stage fright. It was terrible, too. He was sweating so badly they couldn't put make-up on him. The make-up was just sliding off his face. It was a packed house (about 1000 people), and this guy was almost in tears. But, he went out and did it. He was awful, though. He completely lost the English accent and was speaking so softly no one could hear him. Snidley Whiplash was trembling so severely the audience was talking about it. You could hear people buzzing about this paralyzed kid on stage. It was one of the most awkward things I've ever witnessed.

    Luckily, he was better in the next two performances. Not much, though.

    One side note. The crew and I were watching from the wings. My friend's girl was standing behind me, getting as close as possible. She was rubbing herself all over me while her boyfriend imploded on stage right in front of us. It was a bizarre night.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow, in my next life I want an experience like that!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nooch, I've never seen anyone sweat like that. The make-up running down his face made him look surreal. His Whiplash was Lynchian.

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  7. Oh, no. This is terrible. I'll miss John Simon if this is true.

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  8. Yeah, the Fiddler on the Roof he speaks about is in Yiddish, not Hebrew and English. But I would have expected nothing less from the same man who said black people shouldn't be in Shakespeare because they generally ruin the plays. Rest in fitfulness, you foul old bigot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, the gentle humanity of the deranged left. Really bad form, "Miss Take."

      R.I.P. Mr. Simon. I often re-read your books with great pleasure.

      Delete
  9. Mr. Simon's wife sent out this e-mail on Monday, 25 Nov 2019:

    John Simon died yesterday evening at Westchester Medical Center.

    We had been having lunch before the matinee at Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre when he became disoriented then unresponsive. An ambulance was called and he received excellent care. He did not regain consciousness and died six hours after being admitted. He had a burst blood vessel in his brain—a hemorrhage which caused swelling of the brain.

    Per his wishes I am arranging a cremation. There will be no funeral. Please see a play or read a great book or poem—or watch some tennis today in his memory. He had a fantastic life. I’m glad he did not suffer at the end. He just seemed to be sleeping soundly and then he was gone.

    94 years. May 12, 1925–November 24, 2019
    A long run!

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  11. An enormous loss. Read his review about Paul Fort, the French poet, to see him at his generous best. Tom Parker, Washington DC (Uneasy Stages, page 270.)

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  12. What a shock. But we knew it was coming. I was reading an Atlantic article called "The Problem With ‘Hey Guys’" and needed a John Simon cleanse. Good God! JS is dead but he still exists!

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  14. My condolences for your loss. I was not a fan of his. But my deepest sympathies regardless.

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  15. " I myself prefer being considered a creep, but that is what you get for having what Vladimir Nabokov called “Strong Opinions.” It is odd that in a country so wallowing in negativity, starting with mass shootings and climaxing with Trump, such an unim-portant matter as theater criticism should generate so much hostility."

    Mr. Simon apparently can't see that it is the anti-Trump nebula that is responsible for the stranglehold on "strong opinions" (i.e., those that go against the prevailing grain).

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  18. And he outlived one of his more infamous bete noires, Sylvia Miles,by 5 months!

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  19. I was just wondering why he hadn’t posted a new piece. God, I’ll miss his writing. And I’ll miss the ones who left insightful (or otherwise amusing) comments here: Pop Leibel, noochinator, Scott Whittaker, et al.
    RIP, JS

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