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N.Y. Times’ Gussow replaced by Brantley

In a move that has been in the works for several months, the New York Times has replaced veteran second-string drama critic Mel Gussow with Ben Brantley, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine who has not previously published drama reviews.

Although Times cultural news editor Paul Goldberger would not confirm the appointment, an official announcement of the change is expected today. Sources at the paper confirmed Brantley’s appointment; reached at home last evening, he declined to comment.

Gussow, who is 59 years old, joined the Times in 1969 as the second-string drama critic. While he held the assignment, the first chair was occupied successively by Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr, Richard Eder and Frank Rich. Reached at home yesterday, Gussow could not confirm the appointment. But if it happens, he said, he will be “considering options.”

Gussow typically writes in a dry, serious style that has struck many in the industry as out of synch with the new New York Times.

But along with a wide range of mainstream new shows and revivals, his reviews and features have championed lesser-known artists working in avant-garde and political theater Off Broadway, internationally and in resident theaters.

Gussow also cultivated strong relationships with many leading theater figures , including Harold Pinter, Athol Fugard and the late Samuel Beckett.

That work has earned him considerable admiration, including the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism in 1979. But the admiration wasn’t shared by Rich, whose dislike of Gussow is an open secret at the Times.

Goldberger and Warren Hoge, an assistant managing editor who oversees the culture department, have spoken with a number of candidates over the past months.

But when Brantley was seen at the theater in the company of Rich and his wife , Times style reporter Alex Witchel, there was little doubt about who had won the all-important support of the chief critic.

Brantley, who is 38, reviewed movies for Elle magazine for four years. But he reputedly won the Times slot on the strength of several sample drama reviews.