In thinking about the value of reviews beyond the consumer-guide, one thing that struck me that reviewers (can) do is provide context for the work being seen. They're not the only ones who do this, of course. CultureBot (for example) largely exists to provide a context in which experimental work can be understood. Adam Szymcowicz's blog, with its now-pushing-70 reviews of living playwrights is providing (along with other things) contextual information about new work.
This is pretty basic stuff, of course, but it's harder than it looks. Let's take a particularly good recent example: Jason Zinoman's review of "Ghost Light" in the Times this week. Now, it helps that Jason happens to be working on a book on American horror, but anyway, in the course of that review we get these two paragraphs:
The playwright Desi Moreno-Penson belongs to a new generation of theater artists reared on a diet of vampires, zombies and charming serial killers. Call this movement the Theater of Blood, after the Vincent Price movie about a Shakespearean actor who kills critics, after torturing them with a hammy monologue. (It still gives me chills.) At the forefront is Clay McLeod Chapman, whose “Pumpkin Pie Show” (running at Under St. Marks) channels the spirit of H. P. Lovecraft. The Grand Guignol showmen at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the goremeister Timothy Haskell also contribute their fair share of shocks.
This play aims directly for movie buffs with its setting, a creepy motel (“Psycho”), an ominous figure in a mirror (“Repulsion”) and an old motivation for evil, ambition for theater fame (“Rosemary’s Baby”). The director José Zayas does nice work with his actors, staging a sweaty grapple of a sex scene between Brian and Natalie (played with burning eyes by Kate Benson). Interrupting this affair is the sudden appearance of a ghost and an aggressive security guard (Hugh Sinclair) killing the mood.
So here we have the piece put into a broader context, and then that context brought to bear on what works (and later in the review, doesn't work) in the show. In the course of reading this short review, you've learned the names of some other artists to check out whose work is similar (in case you want to check out good exemplars of this kind of show) you've learned the other work its speaking to and is in conversation with etc. Not too shabby.
Another review that I think did this well was David Cote's review of Rabbit Hole. Some people at the time pegged it as totally unfair to the play to weigh it down with the baggage of Manhattan Theatre Club (and a friend of mine actually called me on the phone to yell at me at the time because I praised it). But if a play is an object lesson of something broader about plays in general that is positive or negative, than it's worth talking about in that context. No theatre artist would mind Cote saying a production was symbolic of everything right about a given theatre company's approach, would they? No. No one would say "your positive review has unfairly saddled this play I liked with your own positive baggage about the theatre company producing it".
One non-theatre reviewer who is pretty much a master at providing context is Douglas Wolk. In both his comics and music writing, he's very good at telling the story that surrounds the work in ways that are informative and entertaining. Take his review of James Brown: The Singles, Vol. 7 for Pitchfork in which he tells the story of the drastic personnel changes in Brown's back up band and how that shaped his music for the better. (Similarly, Scott Plagenhoef's review of The Beatles Revolver does a great job of providing narrative context for the work).
While we're on the subject of Pitchfork, it's worth noting that they regularly provide examples of how contextualization can be done very badly. One example is when reviews provide contextual information that does not add any value but rather exists to establish that the reviewer is part of an Exclusive Club of People Who Have Authority And Are In The Know. In this way, it works the way that Orwell discusses academic language in Politics and the English Language (and which DFW expands on in Authority and American Usage). Let me give you an example:
No one ever wants to admit that summer's totally over, but it's even tougher this year considering how fun it all was-- seems like every other day, an evocatively named band would come about and contribute to this glo-fi/dreambeat/chillwave thing that was perfect for those unbearably humid August nights rife with possibility, imagining an alternate universe where the narcotic of choice in danceclubs were Galaxie 500 and Saint Etienne records. (emph. mine)
Glo-fi. Dreambeat. Chillwave. These terms are, to the vast majority of people (including yours truly, who reads a lot of music reviews) meaningless. They do nothing to describe the music being reviewed. They do nothing to put it in a broader context. It's just random genre hair-splitting. The reference to Galaxie 500 and Saint Etienne isn't particularly helpful either... For one thing, what does Galaxie 500, with its drony, shoe-gazer minimalism have to do with Saint Etienne with its deep indebtedness to club beats and 3-minute pop single revivalist tendencies?
Another negative example of contextualization is this Hilton Als review of David Adjmi's Stunning, which is more like an essay on Tennessee Williams with some references here and there to Adjmi's play. Adjmi's play contains Williams references, so it's understandable, but it still reads like Als had a big stack of Williams on his bedside table and didn't want his reading list to go to waste. And of course, one can also get contextualization wrong by including in the review things that one doesn't really know anything about etc.
So this is the problem that I see in the future... One of the reasons why Jason can do this is that he has the word count to do it. Ditto Michael Feingold (although the context he usually puts work in is how much better plays were back in his day). It's nearly impossible to provide much broader context writing when your word count is two hundred words. And, of course, we all know print review space is shrinking fast.
This is where the online world could fill in the gaps. I say could, because I don't think it is yet and I don't think it's necessarily a slam dunk that it will. The problem right now is that most print publications can't stay afloat, either in the short or long terms. The Washington Post loses money and is kept afloat by Kaplan's test prep revenues and The New Yorker frequently loses money, but the prestige of the magazine's brand is important to CN as a company, to take two examples. But (and here's the problem) online revenues aren't sufficient to support these print publications either. If they were to move to being entirely online, they'd still be screwed.
I think it is a good thing that we have professional reviewers whose work is edited by professional editors. I might not always think their work is good, I might want it to be better, but I think it is a good thing for our artform and our industry. I don't think an army of amateur (or even Pro-Am!) reviewers is a cure-all for the problems facing theatre criticism. I think the amateur/pro-am reviewing and criticism that happens online is definitely important, and good, and I think the rise of it along with the rise of the blogosphere is definitely a positive or else I wouldn't have started critic-o-meter! But still, having a professional reviewing component is a good thing. So... how are we going to have that in the future if the mammoth print publications that support that coverage may not be sustainable? That scares me. I'm sure it scares my reviewer friends more, but the question scares me.
One positive development here is reviewers having blogs. This provides an opportunity (not always taken) to discuss the work more in depth than the reviews allow.
Which reminds me...why don't the Times' reviewers have blogs?