Everyone Is Not a Critic

The All-Seeing Eye of Providence

The All-Seeing Eye of Providence

My colleague Kevin Broccoli recently pronounced theater criticism dead: “You’re better off hiring 50 20-year-olds to talk about your show on social media than you are cozying up to a Motif contributor on opening night.” (“Let’s Talk About Critics,” Jan 10). He cites “an army of straight, white, male critics” whose perspective makes them less able to understand dramatic work about people different from themselves.

I agree with some of what he said. Too often, his assertion is true that “even when a review is good, it’s rarely more than a plot summary with a few upbeat adjectives tagged onto the end” and “Sometimes I wonder if we should all just give up and let critics give each production a letter grade instead of forcing them to write what oftentimes amounts to little more than a book report.” But such reviews do a disservice to readers.

The main role of the critic is to serve as a proxy for an educated, intelligent audience member, and the goal of the critic should be to help a dramatic work find its prospective audience. Theater-goers have a limited amount of opportunity to see shows, and reviews help them choose where to invest their precious time. It’s rare that anything is so bad that the prospective audience is effectively zero. As I wrote about the Fifty Shades films, “Every film has some plausible audience, but some films are cynically made for an audience of idiots and it is difficult for even the most honest critic to say, ‘Go see this film because you’re an idiot and it was made with you in mind.’”

Because criticism is fundamentally an intellectual rather than an emotional exercise, it is wrong to claim identity politics has any proper role, and “straight, white, male critics” are entirely capable of understanding and reviewing plays about characters who may not share these same characteristics.

I’m not black, but I’m very proud of my lengthy review of Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin at Trinity Rep because it provided thorough background information about the playwright and the civil rights movement, including explaining the cryptic title. I’m not a Marxist, but my review of the excellent Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo at Contemporary Theater Company provided background on the complicated political situation that motivated its creation. I’m not British, but my review of the brilliant Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth at Wilbury Group explained much that would not be obvious to an American audience. I’m not a Nazi, but the real history behind the play was a focus of my review of Taking Sides by Sir Ronald Harwood at Renaissance City Theatre. I’m not Spanish, but my review of Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega at Trinity Rep explained why this 400-year-old play became popular during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and why it is relevant now. Several people directly told me that the explanations of anthropology and classic science-fiction in my review of The Man from Earth by Jerome Bixby at Attleboro Community Theatre prompted them to go see the play.

Other Motif critics regularly introduce background helpful to comprehend a play. A few examples: Rebecca Maxfield’s review of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn at Wilbury Group explained its meta-theatrical structure as a parody of an episode of the TV series “The Simpsons” that was in turn a parody of the classic 1962 film Cape Fear. Terry Shea’s review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Richard Greenberg at 2nd Story Theatre emphasized that it followed the original Truman Capote novella more closely than the famous film it inspired. Shannon McLoud’s review of 3C by David Adjmi at (Broccoli’s own) Epic Theatre explained that it was a pointed satire of the LGBTQ-unfriendly and arguably outright homophobic 1970s television sitcom “Three’s Company.”

Sometimes I’ve deemed it appropriate to call out a play for historical inaccuracy or other reasons. I pointed out in my review of Golda’s Balcony by William Gibson that the principal plot point is an outright lie: “No one expects what transpires on stage to be a strictly faithful account, but it is going too far to have George Washington support monarchy or Abraham Lincoln support slavery.” My review of Lend Me a Tenor by Ken Ludwig at RI Stage Ensemble explained the controversy surrounding its key plot element of wearing blackface, especially in a recent play from 1986. My review of Goodbye and Hurry Back by Leonard Schwartz at Arctic Playhouse, a biographical play about Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, explained at considerable length why the production betrayed a complete misunderstanding of its main characters.

I cite these examples as evidence that criticism is hard work: doing it correctly requires real thought and knowledge. I don’t write reviews that reduce down to useless platitudes such as “I liked it” or “I hated it,” but instead try to ground every review, whether positive or negative, in sufficient intellectual effort to make it worthwhile to the reader. Sometimes I’ve even poked fun at my own approach, saying in my review of Venus in Fur by David Ives at 2nd Story Theatre, “A bit of background is helpful for those not already familiar with 19th Century German-language pornography.” But whatever you’re getting from my writing, you’re unlikely to get it from a random “50 20-year-olds” writing on social media. The information I’m trying to give every play-goer or prospective play-goer is what, in seeing the play or deciding whether to see the play, they would say “I wish someone had told me that.”

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