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February 23, 2006

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Freeman

Frankly, Isherwood sees so many plays and writes so many reviews, he's bound to at least entertain himself from time to time. Not long ago, in the Times Book's section Michiko Kakutani wrote a review as if she was Holden Caulfield. It was sort of farcical, but it got the point across.

While this isn't exactly useful feedback for the production, Isherwood is writing to the reader. That's a difference sometimes I think people forget...some reviews seem to be in conversation with the artists, and some seem to be speaking to the interested reader. I think Isherwood, in his reviews, is more than likely the latter.

Either way, the review is about the play and is, in a way, his response to what he saw. That works for me.

isaac

I guess my question to you, Matt, then is why is it more valuable to speak only about the play being written about?

And

You seem to see writing for the audience and writing for the artist as mutually exclusive. Is that an accurate representation of your views? Why or why not do you see it this way?

You see, here is the perspective I come from... critics see a large amount of theater all over the place. They are in a unique position to write about what's going for both their reader's benefit and the artist's/producers/whatever's benefit. To me, writing about only the play seems a shirking of duty in some way. To you, it is a better thing than writing about theater at large in a review (I, on the other hand, crave it.. otherwise, I feel like reviews lack context)....This difference of opinion interests me, especially given that you have actual professional experience writing reviews and I do not.

Any other reviewers out there wanna chime in? Any other artists? Charles? Are you reading?

Col

Seems to me like a cutesy play got a cutesy review. I think sometimes that Isherwood "matches" his review to how he perceives the essence of a show. I thought, for example that his orgasmic review of THOM PAIN had a kind of mysterious rhythm to it and a sparseness which I don't normally see in his prose. Although I was curious about that crack about Sarah Jessica Parker; I thought all the critics love her. Well, I guess not him. And I thought the comment about Ms. McDonnell's delivery was typical of the worst side of his bitchiness. As usual per most Times reviews, short shrift on the design elements and the direction.

Freeman

I would say that my experience writing reviews gives me a few things and maybe disadvantages me as well. I, for the most part, am generally pretty sympathetic towards the issue. It's a very hard thing to sit down, with a deadline, know that people are waiting for and depending on your words, knowing that your words drive consumer dollars, and to just try to write something entertaining, honest, with a sense of context, that is informed by some knowledge and also (this is important) matches the "house" style.

Time Out and nytheatre.com and the New York Times (to use three obvious examples) all have a different internal style. Martin Denton, for his part, expressly asks reviewers NOT to take a tone of expertise, but to write on a peer/personal level. He identifies that for a vast number of productions he reviews, it is the only review they will receive. He accordingly takes giving them constructive feedback seriously and tries not to attack.

Time Out trades in its knowledge and credibility among the Out-And-About young urbanite who is not only trying to figure out what to do, but get the pulse of the city. The tone therein is often more hip and "wise" and snarky than you'll find elsewhere.

The Times reviews are written in the template style for reviews these days... a little bit of context, a little commentary, a sense of the reviewers opinion, and an essentially general assessment. The reviews carry a great weight, so it's a fine line for those reviewers (dealing with publicists and angry responses all day) to write something that's creative and from the gut, without overvaluing the sounds of their overly valued voices.

The reason I tend to prefer a review to the play first and foremost is not that I feel reviews should be devoid of context or be a book report ("This happened, that happened, it was good, it was bad...") but that the piece should be an essay on the play at hand, and use the external references to highlight the reviewers response to the piece. A review isn't a soap box, it serves a purpose, and that purpose is to provide the reader to learn about the quality of a particular production.

Of course, the entire nature of criticism is flawed (opinion is never absolute) but it's also something necessary. Most of us simply do not have the time our resources to experience personally the number of theatrical productions that are happening all around us. So these responses should be increasingly taken as a larger tapestry that allows us to experience the pulse of the theatrical world and discuss it and relate to it...to make informed choices about it that are not based on advertising, and to simply think and talk about the mass of opinions that can swell up around any given production.

For me, the single review is just that: the informed view of someone that is given the trust and responsibility to help guide the artistic dialogue. That, to me, asks that at least the critic respond to the productions as they are seen. There are editorials for editorializing and articles for analysis and fact. Reviews are to simply talk about what is being seen (with context, of course) and that is more than enough work for any piece of writing.

Freeman

The sheer number of typos in the post above gives me shame.

Onwards.

George Hunka

I agree with Matt in part, disagree in another part.

Part of the pleasure for writing for nytheatre.com is that, other than Martin (who feels an obligation to completeness and therefore sees far more shows than any individual reviewer for his site), we do get to choose what we review. This may also account for the unusual positive-to-negative ratio of reviews on the site, for who would want to see something that one wouldn't particularly care for? The case of TONY and NYTimes reviewers is somewhat different, and more driven by assignment and reasonable practice (no point in running a review for a show, for example, that would close before the review was published, since their reviews at least in part serve as guidance for the reader as well as response to the artist).

No doubt both Isherwood and Cote, unlike Matt and myself, see a lot of theater that they don't particularly care for; in the case of this review, Isherwood clearly feels that his readership would be best served and entertained (no harm in that in a review) with a little coy fun; it still nonetheless carries a sense of Isherwood's opinion.

The question of aesthetics or expertise demonstrated in a review is one that each editor rather than each reviewer has to answer, and each has his reasons for responding as he does, based on his knowledge of the readership (a deeper knowledge than the reviewer may be expected to have). Given the very tight space and time constraints in these reviews, any sort of more general points need to be snuck in rather subversively. It's not easy to do. But on occasion reviewers, being human, need to let loose a bit. In the case of Cote and Isherwood, who have much larger readerships than Matt or I do, these occasional outbursts are usually read in the context of their own continuing dialogue with their readership.

A completely useless response to your question, Isaac, but there you are.

Freeman

I'd say George definitely makes a point here, especially regarding seeing shows that you choose versus what is assigned.

I did a fair amount of reviewing of video games, briefly. What struck me about the experience was that 1) I started to dislike playing games because I often HAD to play ones that weren't very well made 2) once you hit a level where you are dealing with PR people, you're pretty much managing relationships as much as you are writing reviews 3) you have to write something, often, and it is how you make money. Want another crack at the review? Sorry, no dice.

isaac

Interesting. Allow me to posit another question, based on Col's input... the Times definitely has a in-house writing style that is dominated by the text of the play, with often a note or two about acting and little to nothing about directors and designer (often it's "in a handsome production directed by X and costumed by Y..." and then followed by a regurgitation of the credits list of the program).

Do you (and by you I mean anyone who wants to chime in) feel well served by this?

Reviewers are many things, but one thing they're not is dramaturgs. I wonder if all of this (over-)emphasizing on one element of the play is particularly helpful.

I'm not saying that reviews should be primarily about the directing, or the costumes or anything else, but just some balance between script and production might be good...

Andrew

In my experience, on the whole reviews do tend to slight directors and designers, compared to actors and writers; not sure if that's a matter of reviewer interest or, in the case of directors, misunderstanding of the directors' contributions. But tailoring the review to the show makes sense to me, in the way Col describes--not just in terms of the style of writing, but by privileging in the review what the production privileges. There is beautiful design that provides unobtrusive environments for plays, and that's a different thing from Wooster Group design. That's not to say that a gorgeous naturalistic set shouldn't be acknowledged and celebrated, but that in a short review it won't take up as much space. A review of a one-person show will talk more about the acting; a review of a musical will talk more about directing and choreography. Still that's not to say you should ignore any element of a show. And plays just don't get done without directors, so I don't see how you can get away without talking about their work. But what you walk away from a play with, what stays in your mind, that's the heart of the review, I would imagine.

Abe Goldfarb

Well, first of all, I'd fall down on Isherwood's side here. To read this "in light of" Cote's review produces no special revelations, except perhaps that we're all getting bored of the Theatre of the Pat. If Isherwood didn't give a review that encompassed many aspects of the production, that's probably because he didn't find them particularly noteworthy. In a sense, that's a form of critique right there, whether advertent or not. And I don't think that it's a sin of omission to simply review the production at hand without placing it in a larger context. Frankly, it sounds like the play in question doesn't really meet you halfway on that one. Sure, I'd probably be hurt by a review like this, but then I probably wouldn't do a play about talking fucking cats.

isaac

I think I was asking a slightly broader quesiton when I was building off of what Col said, Abe. What i was saying was that, in general, the Times give short shrift to everything other than Text (I would argue, Andrew, that even their focus on performances is lacking in comparison). What are we to make of this?

It is an interesting point you make in response, Abe, that perhaps this is symptomatic of a wider thing-- that our theater is very very text based. Whether that's good or not is probably a totally different consideration.

I think where I'm trying to go with this is.. what are we to do with "bad" plays/productions? If all we're going to do is say "wow, that sucked" well... you don't need more than two sentences to do that, so why not use your time to do something else? The something else Isherwood chose here was to be... um... catty. The something else Cote chose was to lambast the Big Three theaters. I fail to see how the latter is less valid than the former, I guess.

Jason Grote

I thought perhaps my distaste for the piece may have been a knee-jerk reaction, not only against Isherwood, but against any attempt at NYT reviewers being "clever" - I winced at that Kakutani/Caufield piece too. So I reread it. And no offense to those of you who liked it, but my God, I feel embarrassed for the man. It's hard for me to describe how insipid I think this review is. Again, no insult intended to those of you who liked it, different strokes and all that. But (shudder).

If I had the time and wherewithal, I would attempt to double back on Isherwood and ape his style by reviewing the piece as a short play. But I've got all these other back-burner vendettas to attend to!

Jason Grote

PS - thanks for the mention, Isaac - though I would be amazed if I were the first to refer to him as "The Prince of Darkness"... Though I think that moniker better describes Karl Rove. Maybe it's like Marvel Comics, where they have at least three different characters who are clearly intended to be the devil.

Steven Oxman

I’m greatly enjoying these comments. They touch on much of the experience of reviewing. I do want to say one thing, though, when I review (I actually wrote about “Indoor/Outdoor” for the LA Times and am now reviewing a lot for “Variety” again). I see the show in the evening, and then have to deliver the review by 9 a.m. or so the next morning. Then I go to “work” (hey, I’m a freelancer, and I gotta make a real living.) Sometimes, the cycle begins again that night, after getting up at 5 a.m., writing, working, and commuting back home.

So, yes, sometimes I get the chance to think deeply about how to review the play, but always under a strict deadline.

For me, the most important thing on my mind is to communicate my key response, but that’s not always easy. With better plays, the response is still changing after 12 hours of seeing it. So, please, understand that these reviews are snapshots of a reaction. (I just reviewed Twyla Tharp’s new piece based on Bob Dylan music. I wrote the review the morning after seeing it (which involved 5 hours of driving). After two weeks, though, I’m still not really sure what I think about it.

In terms of discussing direction and design in addition to the writing and the acting, it really depends on the show. I don’t think it’s that critics (certainly not those at the caliber of Charles Isherwood) don’t understand what they do, it’s that you’ve got a time and length constraint, and you have to respond to what most effected you. For a Shakespeare or Chekhov play, that’s likely to be the direction and acting. For a new play, that’s going to be the play itself. Design most often works in a supporting role, but I’ve read plenty of reviews that focus on design because it had a significant impact.

Reviews that try to discuss everything come off as laundry lists. I’ve written my share of those – hey, you’re running out of time, and if you can’t get it right, get it written. But they’re always my worst work. It takes a while for a reviewer to learn this – and theatre artists are never happy to hear it – but the better reviews are those that don’t try to mention everyone.

And, finally, the reason you’re writing about Charles’s review, and Cotes’ review of “Rabbit Hole,” is because they were clever or passionate. In the end, theatre reviewing is simply another type of writing. You’re drawn to the ones that have a strong voice and point of view, even if people then complain that it becomes about the writer and not about the play.

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