Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Blogging, Theatre, and the Times

Should I just stop pretending I blog and just end this thing?

I’m thinking about it, but I’m not ready. Eventually, I’ll find the rhythm. For now, I hope you’ll bear with me.

The primary reason I don’t blog often is actually because my spare time from the day job is now taken up with reviewing again. I’m back writing for Variety after a brief stint with the Los Angeles Times. The Times has finally hired a full-time theatre critic, Charles McNulty (a very fine critic and old grad-school mate of mine), who will arrive soon. Immediately after the announcement, Variety quickly and kindly pursued me to return as the lead L.A. critic, so rather than review who-knows-what for the Times I’m back home with Variety and I appreciate their support.

Recent reviews include this one on an intriguing English experimental troupe Forced Entertainment, one on the production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with John Goodman and Brenda Fricker as Big Daddy and Big Mama, and one on “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a new musical that I liked a lot.

I’ve been reading other theatre blogs even though I haven’t been posting myself. I must say there are more and more all the time and the conversations are getting quite good – and even better than that. People have congratulated George Hunka many times as the leader of the theatre bloggers, and he deserves that reputation for simple, straightforward, informative, and relish-able posts like this one about theatre books he’d like for Christmas.

Months ago, George and Isaac Butler posted some provocative pieces about theatre critics; it was just as I was moving and I never had an opportunity to engage. Here’s a link to George’s criticism category and also to the specific one that really jumped out at me for its focus on many of the core issues involved.

While I have no desire to become the voice of theatre critics (OK, maybe I’m lying about that), I think I can add some insight into the issues critics face. So if you’re interested, George and Isaac, I’m ready to give it a go.

I will, of course, start by being a bit contrary. I am a critic, after all. In a recent post, Isaac goes after the NY Times. Isaac and I both shared a disdain for an ignorant Times piece about La Jolla Playhouse; it was so erroneous the Times published a scathingly sweeping correction.

But then Isaac posted on Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, and I have to say I’m shocked.

There is no critic in the country I would rather read these days than Charles Isherwood. He’s droll as hell, but he’s passionate. I do know Charles a little; he was the lead Variety critic and he assigned me pieces on occasion, but this is not a personal defense. I will say that, unlike most New York critics, Charles very much recognizes the national theatre scene – as the editor of Weekly Variety theatre section, he constantly came after me to write more about what was happening around the country.

He’s just the best writer of the entire lot. He’s insanely smart, extremely well-read, and he can be funny. When he hates something, he tells you. Nothing could improve theatre coverage in the Times more than Ben Brantley's giving way to Charles as lead critic, not because Mr. Brantley isn’t good, but because Charles is great.

To suggest that he’s “unnecessarily mean and hateful,” as Isaac does, I think is unfair. Isaac was referring to this review of Itamar Moses’s play “Bach at Leipzieg,” which he called “career assassination.” It reads to me just like a scathingly negative review; Charles saw the play as pretentious, pure and simple, and he said so in eloquent terms. He hated it, and it’s his job to say so. He also said why he didn't like it, what he believed Moses was trying to do, and why he failed at it. What’s unnecessary about that? He wasn’t the only one, by the way. Other critics just didn’t say it as descriptively.

The comment about career assassination reminds me of a story once told to me by Richard Gilman (deservedly one of George’s favorite critics and among my mentors). He had given Lorraine Hansbury’s follow-up to “A Raisin in the Sun” a terrible review. When she died soon afterwards, Gilman got a call from someone saying, “Happy now?!??!”

You think George Bernard Shaw wasn’t unnecessarily mean and hateful? He’s the man who said a critic’s job was to “leave no turn unstoned.”

And we tend to look kindly on greats like Eric Bentley – and, indeed, there has never been anyone better – mostly because we read their books, which focus on the works they loved. He wrote plenty of scathing reviews himself.

You know, people think it’s fun for critics to pan people in print. It’s not – it’s a burden, one we take on and one we take responsibility for. And any critic worth his/her salt knows that we're parasites -- we don't exist without other's creative work. But to do less than give our genuine, passionate, honest reaction would be doing the theatre itself a horrendous disservice.

Isaac also commented on the fact that the Sunday Times is just a PR section. There’s definitely something to that, and it’s not just the Times. I really wish papers would get away from the preview puff pieces that they do (including, by the way, the career-creating one on Moses that the Times ran before his play opened). They’re just too predictable, and there's got to be a more imaginative way to do them. (Small papers that have one writer do both the preview and the review are treading on very iffy territory – it’s tough to do a puff piece interview and then have to respond honestly to a play. It feels very impolite.)

They need to do more commentary, previews with something to say, some critical sensibility. Like, for example, Charles Isherwood’s piece in today’s Sunday NY Times. (Which, I just discovered, Isaac himself has praised. Once again, we agree.)