My Vanishing Act

Nobody Gives Critics a Break, but Even They Need One

Just now in New York, the weariness level is high on both sides. Uptown specializes in affluent dressing, Downtown in a proudly displayed poverty. Both seem more preoccupied with means than with purpose, or substance, or whatever you care to call it. This may come, in part, from our having been through several decades of artistic turmoil in each realm. The pompous musical has been replaced Uptown by the joking kind, which takes more than one leaf from Downtown's attitude book. Playwrights, in contrast, have mostly migrated to the resident-theater middle ground, which is busily grooming them for potential Broadway transfers. Viewed by some as betrayals, failures, sellouts, or setbacks, these changes are simply changes, which will ultimately tend to make life in the theater more interesting. Like good Americans, we instinctively want to believe that art progresses; in fact, all it does is alter, recycling from the past whatever seems to be most needful at any given moment.

The shifts supply a degree of frustration, as artists try to get with a money-driven or style-driven program that may not be inherent to their nature, and sit even more uncomfortably on the hundreds of new arrivals whose well-meaning college professors have taught them that art consists of imitating whatever was current in New York, London, or Germany last year. These newcomers are the ones I worry about most, and have least contact with. Mainly, I meet them in the form of hopeful, often hand-addressed press releases, begging for recognition. They rush in boldly and unknowingly, as the young always have, and make all the bold mistakes of the young: They address me by nicknames that no one has ever called me; they proudly announce the New York premieres of plays that were staged here two years ago, or the "first major translation" of those I translated five years ago. They plead with me to assign someone to cover their show, never asking whether that's my job (it's not), and they urge me to attend "even if you don't review it," which is just what a critic wants to hear in a week with 17 major openings. And, apparently trying to emulate Cameron Mackintosh's souvenir business, they shower me with alleged goodies: cocktail shakers, pencil cases, coffee mugs stamped with the show's logo or condoms wrapped in it. I usually give these things away, feeling half guilty at the endearing ineptness of the bribe attempt, and half irate at the absence of the really valuable items that would make it worth considering. Every man has his price, but mine is not a pencil case.

I take none of this personally, because the young are young, because I know they do the same to everyone else who covers the theater, and because, improbable as it may seem, their elders and should-know-betters make an amazing number of the same mistakes. And, every so often, I take a risk on the young, and one in every 20 or so risks turns out to be something worth seeing—a new experience, or a new twist on an old one, or one that brings the life around you into sharp focus. In countries where the theater is believed in as more than a commodity and a career launcher, it happens more frequently. We have the misfortune to live, these days, in a city where money rules unchallenged—the other big fact that has changed the theater in the last two decades. Money competed for openly is no better or worse than anything else, but as a hidden motive for "artistic" choices (which it is far too often in New York these days) it's both unreliable and rotten. One problem with being a New York critic in the past few decades is that the true history of our theater has been a secret history of unprovable transactions that requires a Procopius, not a Horace, to set down its ars poetica.

illustration by Stan Shaw

That's not a critic's job. And the critic can get understandably impatient, waiting till the business finaglings get out of the way and the art takes over. So we learn to sleep sitting up as we crawl along, girding ourselves for the next windmill blade to descend and knock us over. And every now and then, because even a critic's life is full of surprises, something comes along to liberate us from the sleep-inducing aisle seat, the blizzard of desperate press releases, the importuning voice-mail messages from "close friends" who only phone when they have a show opening. Sometimes we actually get a break.

See you all in December.

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