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He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: The perils of reading too much into a theater review



After the column last month in which I fessed up to having made some factual errors in my theater reviews [see "Mea Culpa," August 7], I received an e-mail from actor-director Joe Hanrahan, who wrote that my piece had elicited memories of past reviews — "not from you," he assured me — that had made him "a little nuts." Although his litany of reviewers' sins included both commissions and omissions, I was especially intrigued by the omissions. Artists, it appears, have certain expectations as to what should appear in print.

For instance, Hanrahan recalled a play he had directed. The production "received a great review, but the reviewer didn't bother to mention the director (you've seen those reviews, they seem to infer that the show happened by itself)." Not only have I seen those reviews, I have written many such notices. Why? Because it's difficult for a reviewer to know who is responsible for what occurs on the stage.

Popular consensus has it that if a production is good, the director must have done a good job. Often that's true, but sometimes it's not. Several years ago local reviewers raved about the great ensemble cast and pithy direction in a prize-winning drama at the Rep. One of those actors later told me that the director was clueless; the actors had banded together to salvage the evening. Which in itself might have been a self-serving comment. Hard to know, if you did not attend rehearsals. But I do know that it can be dicey to bestow or deny credit blindly.

Actors, by contrast. are highly visible. Even so, evaluating a performance is the most problematic — and the most subjective — part of any review. As the maxim goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Last summer I dismissed a certain featured actor in the Muny's Pajama Game as "beyond hopeless." Harry Hamm at KMOX radio praised that very same performance as "a hoot." There is no absolute here, no right or wrong (except, of course, in this instance, where the actor was, as he always is, beyond hopeless, yet the Muny keeps hiring him).

But it's not enough to dismiss someone as hopeless. We should be expected to spell out the "why" and the "because" behind our views. Yet that kind of exactitude can lead to the manner of writing that made New York magazine's John Simon the scourge of all actors. Simon can be a vivid, even eloquent, analyst of drama; it's theater that gives him a hard time. The human element. Over the years I have learned that rather than dwell on someone's failings, the euphemism "miscast" can serve as a convenient escape hatch. On the other hand, you can carp about a playwright, especially a dead one (Lope de Vega is a safe target), with relative impunity.

Yet when it comes to reviews, there is something even worse for an actor than getting panned, and that something is not getting mentioned at all. A negative review might sadden or even anger the actor. But omission can lead to a crisis of confidence.

Nancy Lewis, surely one of the more distinguished actresses in town, told me that prior to moving to St. Louis, in California she played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl — and was not mentioned in the local newspaper review. "It hurt," she said. (Of course it did.) "But out of that experience I had to ask myself hard questions: Why did I act? What do I hope to get from acting? What do I hope to give as an actress? Although, had I dwelled on it, this public slight might have so discouraged me that I might have even stopped acting, that did not happen. Because of the questions I asked myself, that experience served to strengthen and enhance my ability to communicate more effectively onstage."

Playing the devil's advocate here, it would seem to me that if a critic is reviewing Funny Girl, he is obligated to at least acknowledge the actress playing the title role. At the same time, I concede that sometimes a reviewer's mind goes blank. Four years ago my review of St. Louis Shakespeare's Amadeus was filled with admiration for Kevin Beyer's compelling portrayal of Salieri. But I could think of nothing to write that would illuminate Jared Sanz-Agero's Mozart, so I merely included his name in brackets. Soon after the review appeared, I received a caring e-mail from Sanz-Agero's mother, chiding me for not having written something about her son's performance. Couldn't you think of anything to say, she implored. Thus began a happy exchange in which, in her third e-mail, she finally allowed as how, speaking personally and only for herself, she thought Jared had been miscast. I wrote back that I agreed completely.

Now she had an inkling as to the critic's dilemma. To review, or not to review: That is the question. One answer is that a reviewer is conveying an experience. Beyer's portrayal of Salieri was towering; he was the experience. To erode my account of the evening's theatricality and power by submitting the review to an arbitrary, obligatory checklist would have been a disservice. Reviews are not, and should never become, checklists.

Most RFT reviews are approximately 650 words, a space limitation that explains another fundamental reason actors sometimes don't get mentioned. The first RFT review I ever wrote was of She Loves Me at Stages St. Louis. Seven years later I can still feel the warmth of Whit Reichert's delicately rendered Mister Maraczek, the troubled owner of a European parfumerie. But I did not mention Reichert. By the time I had finished describing, among others, Kari Ely, Steve Isom and Ben Nordstrom, I had hit my word limit.

I could list many performers whom I regret not having included. Dennis Lebby has done fascinating work in featured roles at the Black Rep that I was unable to single out. Earlier this summer in my review of The Producers at the Muny, Angie Schworer was so delightful as the voluptuous Ulla that my review included an apology for having neglected to mention her in 2002, when she played the same role at the Fox. But of course, by giving Schworer extra space in my June review, I then had to omit mention of some of the other supporting characters in the Muny staging. Actors, especially those in featured roles, should never jump to the rash, insecure conclusion that because they are not mentioned in a review, the critic disliked them. But then, actors probably shouldn't be reading reviews anyway.

If a reviewer runs out of space in which to write about actors, imagine the problem of discussing designers. Too many times I have been chastised with a variation of the following: "You've done it now; your review mentioned the scenery and the lighting, but not the costumes, and the costume designer is really hurt." This is where that approach to checklist journalism works against a reviewer's ambitions, for it implies that reviews are written for those who toil in the vineyards. Whereas in fact, a critic's only allegiance is to the potential theatergoer.

Last month the ardent author Stuart W. Little died at age 86. In his New York Times obituary, Little's son observed that although his father had spent a lifetime writing about the New York theater, "he was proudest of the fact that he never became a critic. He wanted to be liked by people." Ouch. I never would have thought that criticism was a profession not to be proud of. But it's also true: A critic cannot expect to win popularity contests. For here's the all-too-apparent irony: In a job that seeks to strive for precision, reviewing is a highly imprecise endeavor. 

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