10.07.11 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES critics, journalism, rabble rousing

Tweets, blogs and other manners of Internet posting have been aflame since this morning, when Charles Isherwood of The New York Times declared online that he wished to forego having to review any further plays by Adam Rapp.  In the ensuing hours, Isherwood has been chastised for the tone of his piece and for seemingly abandoning his post as a major theatre critic with regard to this particular playwright.  I have a number of reactions and would like to tease out the separate strands of this decidedly inside-theatre story.

First, I would like to praise Charles for his honesty. He is willing to admit that he  simply does not connect with Adam’s work after seeing a great deal of it. He wishes to recuse himself from offering his opinion publicly any longer, believing that it would be better for him and, he suspects, for Adam. I praise Charles in this because he could continue to bash the prolific Rapp endlessly, which does them both a disservice. Christopher Durang has spoken of how he could never get a good review from Frank Rich during the latter’s tenure. While I take Chris at his word and have not done my own assessment of those reviews, it’s pretty clear that Durang would have welcomed such a recusal all those years ago.

I might feel differently about this if New York was a one-newspaper town, or if Charles were the Times’ only theatre critic. Especially if the latter case prevailed, such a recusal could be tantamount to ignoring the work of a playwright and the theatres that produce him, but The Times does have the resources, either staff or freelance, to insure that Adam’s work will still be covered.

That said, I don’t believe that Charles should be relieved of the responsibility of seeing Adam’s plays. If he is to remain an authoritative voice on theatre in this city, or nationally, he cannot be excused from remaining knowledgeable about any playwright who so many feel is talented and worthy. When working critics get to selectively cease learning about and understanding new work, they are not recusing themselves, but abdicating. Whether they write about it is another story, no pun intended.

I have no idea what Adam may feel about today’s piece by Charles, although others have been quick to cite his own  past comments and writing about critics, both pro and con. I doubt that any of those statements precipitated this action, and frankly value the idea that artists can speak freely about the impact of critics upon their work. Too many shy away, ceding the conversation wholly to the media, and theatre is, after all, about dialogue. Unfortunately, personal reactions to being reviewed  negatively often makes it impossible for any such dialogue to be productive.

What does trouble me greatly about today’s “Theater Talkback” is the way in which The Times has milked this issue for attention. What should have been an internal discussion between journalist and editor(s) has been instead brought out in public precisely to generate the kind of brouhaha that quickly ensued in admittedly narrow circles (and to which I now add my own voice sustaining it, dammit). Having just panned Adam’s newest play, the most recent in a long line of negative reviews, why did Charles feel the need – and why was he afforded the opportunity – to air his negative opinions yet again, especially when he suggests his editor will not necessarily allow him to do as he wishes? Why, if permitted, couldn’t he have simply stopped reviewing Adam’s shows and, if some overzealous press agent questioned it in the future, been told that the Times’ assignment policies are its own business (as I so often was told in my press agent days).

In the wake of the Porgy and Bess imbroglio, which the paper exploited by releasing Stephen Sondheim’s letter to them days before it saw print, has the Times decided that this level of debate should be promoted, in order to drive readership, whether online or off? Must they be sending tweets repeatedly urging people to read not only Charles’ piece, as well as the many responses to it? I cannot help but feel that this is a form of intellectual hucksterism that ill suits the Times and does the theatre no good.  At the core of the issue is a worthwhile discussion, but so long as it comes at the potential expense of a specific artist’s reputation, it is a case of power being wielded unfairly. Names did not need to be named, and people could have inferred what they wished, guessing at the artist or artists in question.

In smaller towns, or one newspaper cities, theatres can be subject to the singular opinion of a particular critics writing for the only major media outlet that covers theatre. That influence can be wielded for decades at a time, outlasting playwrights and artistic leadership. Energies should be expended addressing how to remedy that monopolization, not debating the pros and cons of one critic at an outlet with multiple voices, in a city with many critics, who admits he just doesn’t share one playwright’s aesthetic.

P.S. Since it’s on my mind, for further debate about criticism unrelated to the specifics of the above, let’s also focus our energies on the ongoing issue of why theatre criticism remains dominated by white males, when gender and racial diversity would give rise, presumably, to more diverse theatre. To be continued.





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Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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  • Why are only white people doing theatrical reviews? I doubt there’s a theater critic manly enough to stand up to event the hint of someone else politely asking to do one.

    • Burrenshepard

      Hilton Als is one of the countries more prominent theater critics but your point is taken as he’s the only person of color I can think of who writes theater reviews.

  • Rob Kaplowitz

    Howard –

    As usual, you have caught the subtext of what’s happening immensely well.

    The fact of the matter is that the Times is losing both relevance and credibility at a breakneck pace. I watched them desperately try to prop up one show on Broadway a couple of seasons ago, with endless fullmcolor features in different sections each week, while attempting to destroy another with a tepid notice and no further coverage. And, while I may have wanted them to succeed on the first, they failed entirely on. Oth fronts – the championed show has closed, the ignored still runs to great houses.

    If Mr. Isherwood wanted to write about how theatre critics function in society, and how they might possibly function in an ideal world (I still wish Bently’d been writing during my career), then go for it. As you say, no need to drag Mr. Rapp’s name through the mud a second time in a week. But it seems to me to be a publicity stunt.

    If the “paper of record” wasn’t even able to identify Occupy Wall Street as a major movement 60 blocks from its headquarters, it’s in deep trouble. If its hoping that controversy will increase sales and attention, its become a tabloid.

  • beth2027

    I think that a good cross-section of people should be used by the media as far as reviewing plays, music, and other forms of live entertainment. What often suits one person, may not suit someone else. This requires more than one point of view in order to make a good judgement. This is why I rarely make a decision to see a show or not based on a critic’s recommendation. I try to research the show itself, and then ask people who’ve actually seen it first.

  • “At the core of the issue is a worthwhile discussion, but so long as it
    comes at the potential expense of a specific artist’s reputation, it is a
    case of power being wielded unfairly.”

    Ever since Isherwood’s Talkback came out, something about it has been rubbing me the wrong way, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what.  You just nailed it. Awesome.