“Crrrritic!” Estragon sneers as the trumping put-down in the battery of insults he trades with Vladimir in “Waiting for Godot.” You might say that for theater critics, it’s been downhill ever since. And when are critics not crrrritics? That’s easy: When we don’t write rrrrreviews.
Sadly, that’s happening too often these days. When producers announced last fall that Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick would co-star in a revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy “Plaza Suite,” it was news. Married for 22 years, both actors have enjoyed critical and popular acclaim, but they haven’t worked together on Broadway since 1996. In an elegant example of history repeating itself, the revival would have its tryout run at the same Boston theater where George C. Scott, Maureen Stapleton and director Mike Nichols first put the show through its paces before heading south to Times Square.
Most of Boston’s major media showered the revival with enthusiastic features. But no one reviewed it. The critics and their editors were not invited to come until the second-to-last performance, I was told by one of the city’s most prominent critics. Apparently not wanting to appear impolite, they all agreed.
“No reviews” is a trend, spanning from Boston to a recent out-of-town tryout in Los Angeles and even to Broadway. I’m all for producers and the sometimes preposterous lengths they will go to in order to promote and protect their shows. That’s their job. But I’ve often wondered why we, the critics, so willingly go along with their manipulations. Especially when they interfere with the, well let’s call it the journalism part of our job — reporting to our readers and giving context to the cultural news of the day.
Sometimes producers’ manipulations manifest as previews extended beyond the typically agreed upon period of a few weeks. Sometimes it means encouraging fawning features, but telling reviewers the show’s not open to reviews at all. In the case of out-of-town tryouts, it can mean disregarding the local critics’ job of informing their readers — who, after all, are underwriting the tryout period with their ticket purchases.
New Haven, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston share a century-old tradition of being the places where producers wanted their shows to get exposure to audiences and their first notices from legendary critics including the Boston Herald’s Elliot Norton (who had famously advised Simon to bring back the Pigeon sisters in Act II of “The Odd Couple”) and the Globe’s Kevin Kelly. Typically, the critics reviewed shows after just one or two performances in their abbreviated run, setting the course for potential changes before Broadway.
“Plaza Suite” opened at the Plymouth (now Gerald Schoenfeld) Theatre on Valentine’s Day, 1968, after two previews. This time, Broderick, Parker and their tyro director John Benjamin Hickey, in addition to the free pass in Beantown, will have a month of Broadway previews before opening on April 13, for a three-month run that’s reportedly all but sold out.
Across the continent in Los Angeles, playwright David Mamet recently mounted the premiere of his new play, “The Christopher Boy’s Communion,” with a top-rung cast that included his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon and longtime colleagues William H. Macy, David Paymer and Clark Gregg. The venue was the Odyssey Theatre, one of the city’s premiere smaller companies. These are not unknown artists, and the brief run was promoted through feature stories across print, radio and television media. But the critics weren’t invited, and so there were no reviews of this new work by a world-famous playwright that was being seen by paying audiences. None, that is, until Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty attended the show as the guest of a patron near the end of the run.
McNulty did what critics covering developing work by important artists generally do in these situations: He wrote thoughtfully and sympathetically — telling readers that his was not a formal review and this was a work-in-progress. Paying attention to — and by proxy, alerting our readers to — the work of established and nascent artists is one of the best and most important parts of our job.
Back to Broadway, then, where Ivo van Hove’s revival of “West Side Story” opened Feb. 20 to an unusually divided critical reception (though the most negative reviews were in some of the most influential publications, including two from the Times, as well as New York magazine and The Wall Street Journal). What I found remarkable is that the reviews — mine included, so I plead guilty here — appeared in late February for a show that had been running at the Broadway Theatre since December 10; 78 performances in all. (An injury to one of the principals had added a two-week postponement.)
The preview period included a flood-the-plain public relations campaign. Leading the charge was an extensive, friendly cover story in the Times magazine complete with linked videos of interviews with key players, along with features in the New Yorker and elsewhere. Words extolling the show were selectively extracted from the Times story for quote ads in, yes, the Times. (On Twitter, Sasha Weiss, the author of the Times story, wrote that her quotes were taken “completely out of context” and that the paper had “pulled the ad.” But a Times spokesman told me no ad was pulled, and a new one in Sunday’s’ Arts & Leisure opened with the patchwork quote from her story. Through his spokesman, producer Scott Rudin said that he “stands by the NYT quotes.”)
You may argue that in the case of “West Side Story,” the 1957 musical was being wholly revised by a risk-taking director and choreographer, without benefit of an out-of-town tryout. OK, but that amounted to nearly three months without a peep from us. The customers might reasonably have assumed — I mean, look at all those great photos and videos! — that they weren’t subsidizing a work-in-progress, but seeing a finished show. We should have gone in sooner and been part of the conversation in a more timely manner.
Along the same lines: The mostly heralded production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” has had a new Atticus Finch — Ed Harris replacing Jeff Daniels — since November 5. And yet, well into his fourth month of performances, Harris and other new principal cast members still have not been reviewed by the New York critics. Not long ago, a star of Harris’s stature in a reputed hit show would have guaranteed a second look. You’d think critics would want to weigh in on how the new star holds up — especially since theatergoers are being enticed by quotes from the original production.
Some of my colleagues strongly disagree with my long-held view that we shouldn’t let producers tell us what to cover and when (excluding the time-honored courtesy of a brief preview period that has blossomed to three weeks or even a month). When abuses happen, we should just buy a ticket and write.
In this online era where everyone’s-a-critic, we’re too often the last ones to comment. When Boston critic and blogger Bill Marx was asked by Broadway Journal why he hadn’t reviewed “Plaza Suite,” he said it was “just a commercial venture, a celebrity production for Broadway of a dated Neil Simon vehicle…so why bother?”
Why bother, indeed? Well, two reasons come to mind: One, because even commercial ventures can surprise us (I’ll admit it: I loved “Mamma Mia!”) and two, because we’re journalists: it’s the damned job and we’re privileged to have it. So when we minimize or self-censor, it’s downright dispiriting.
We don’t work for producers or playwrights. We have a stake in assuring our role in the ongoing conversation about art, highbrow, lowbrow and everywhere along the spectrum, and in offering our experience, insight and overview to the readers who are subsidizing our meager salaries. We yield that role not only at our peril, but at the risk of seeing live theater, which we deeply care about, grow ever more irrelevant to the culture around us.