Critics on criticism: Theater

The perils of giving praise

William Goldman speaks for many when he opines — as he has frequently — that all critics are embittered failures.

But in my experience, most critics write about film, theater, art, music or television because they love it. We want everything to be good, but truth is, not everything can be. And however deflating that can be, it’s a critic’s job to say so, in the most informative, entertaining way possible.

Of course there are other myths and misperceptions about the job. Most people assume being a chief critic on Broadway means endless chorus boys/girls beating a path to your bed. Annoyingly, not true.

But while everyone thinks theater critics are lonely curmudgeons, a pair of good seats to every new Broadway show is a boon to dating.

But does the critical corps still carry weight? In terms of legit box office clout, the influence of the New York Times is undeniable. But while a Times rave can help galvanize audiences in the opening weeks, even the Times can’t save a show that’s a tough sell.

Reviewers last season were virtually unanimous in showering praise on the Broadway revival of “Journey’s End.” But all the rhapsodic quotes in the world couldn’t drum up an audience for the WWI drama.

What critics can do is provoke discussion. Strong opinions — either positive or negative — in a well-reasoned review from an authoritative source continue to get theater fans talking. In his review in the Times, Variety‘s former chief theater critic Charles Isherwood led the rallying cry for Will Eno’s “Thom Paine (based on nothing),” a beguilingly original one-person play that was decidedly not to the taste of many diehard chatroom denizens. Three seasons later, any mention can still incite impassioned cries for Isherwood’s public beheading.

Such angry rants attest to the fact theater websites have their share of obsessives, sociopaths and unpublishable hacks. Not to mention folks without a life. It’s scary to contemplate what kind of person fuels a 500-entry thread that begins: “Ethel Merman or Mary Martin, who was the greatest star? Discuss.”

To be fair, the blogosphere does have its share of smart, seasoned theatergoers offering incisive assessments of new legit productions, and it serves as a useful training ground for young writers wanting to hone their skills, who in pre-Web times might have struggled for years to secure an outlet.

But in the Internet age, everyone has an opinion. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of established critics and self-appointed pundits?

Variety theater coverage undeniably still has greater impact with industry insiders than it does directly with ticket-buyers.

For a critic, thisis rewarding in terms of writing for the most informed audience possible. Being taken seriously by the people who produce, fund and create theater is a great incentive to be fair, honest, analytical and exacting. And when a show is reviewed out of town, it’s satisfying to know that the review can, it is hoped, lead to improvements.

Sure, there’s a certain glee in eviscerating a trainwreck like “Lestat” or sticking it to a depressing amateur-night like the current Broadway “Grease” revival. But for most writers, there’s no matching the pleasure of being part of a discovery, of helping to switch audiences onto an unknown commodity or bring a new work to the attention of commercial producers, regional theaters or talent scouts that can continue the life of the piece or further the careers of those involved.

Personally, the job of theater critic is gratifying. Before I relocated to New York, I spent 20 years visiting at least once a year and parting with a small personal fortune to catch up with as many plays and musicals as I could. Getting paid to cover one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse theater communities never gets tired.

On the other hand, theater reviewing and chronic back pain are not the best of matches.

But it’s all relative. Jack O’Brien’s staging of “The Coast of Utopia” made that nine-hour marathon fly by without the need for pharmaceuticals. But a blunder like “The Pirate Queen” can have you clutching for the Percoset before the opening number is done.

It was enormously satisfying to be part of the wave of early support for shows like “Doubt,” “Spring Awakening” and “Grey Gardens,” as they gathered momentum to move from Off Broadway nonprofits to the main stem.

The contrasting commercial fates last season of “Spring” and “Gardens” — one a hit, while the latter closed prematurely — underline the essential gamble of any big-league move. But at a time when complex book musicals are being crowded out by dumbed-down pop confections, just the fact that a substantially increased number of people got to see “Grey Gardens” during its nine-month Rialto run is heartening.

And while strong word of mouth certainly has been a factor, the profile of this season’s surprise critical hit, “Xanadu,” got its biggest boost from critics. Illustrating a healthy dose of irreverence toward a group that undeniably takes itself way too seriously, in ads emblazoned with reviewers’ superlatives, the marketing team behind “Xanadu” even included an amusing swipe: “The critics loved it. Seriously.”