Michael Kuchwara (1947-2010)

To call him “Michael” feels strange: The longtime New York drama critic of the Associated Press, who died at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 22, of lung disease, was universally known to his friends and colleagues as “Mike.” He was a Mike, an easygoing, charming, gregarious guy, with a ready wit and a readier smile for everyone. As strong-minded as he was fair-minded, he covered the theater for AP, on and Off-Broadway and across the country, for more than a quarter-century, as both critic and reporter. His love for the art he wrote about was patent in even his most negative reviews; that evident love made him beloved in turn, not only by his fellow critics but by artists, managers, producers, and publicists as well.

The community’s love for Mike was tangible in the days of agony that preceded his death —a hectic time on the theatrical calendar, jammed with Off-Broadway openings, awards ceremonies, and season-ending events. Mike entered Beth Israel Hospital on May 10, complaining of breathing difficulties. An attempt to perform a biopsy on his lung sent him into cardiac arrest; he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Hearing that he was hospitalized, colleagues began visiting regularly; news of his condition flowed from friend to friend; press reps at the various shows opening handed out updates on his precarious state along with the press tickets. The shows were seen, absorbed, and written about, but the reviews Mike didn’t file were the ones everybody wished they could read. (His last, a mixed but sympathetic assessment of The Kid, appeared the day he entered the hospital.)

Mike was scheduled for lung surgery on Thursday, May 20. But that day, a second attempt at a biopsy again resulted in cardiac arrest. Doctors declared his end to be imminent. His family, which had been summoned, was there for him. On the 22nd, he was removed from life support. He died, one might say, as he had lived: surrounded by people who loved him, while listening to show tunes on his iPod.

His loss leaves a distressing gap in the critical fraternity, not least because he had become an increasingly influential voice as more and more newspapers laid off their arts staff and relied on the AP for theater news and reviews. It is an instance of Mike’s essential good nature that he was invariably both the first to laugh off any mention of his increased power, and the first to express his regret at the loss of opportunities for others.

I have many, many recollections of Mike, but only one anecdote: Once, bumping into him as we both struggled up a crowded aisle following a deeply misguided revival of a bygone Broadway success, I started waxing indignant over the crude costuming and direction that had turned an unmarried female character into a mannish stereotype. “Why didn’t they just hang a neon sign over her head that said ‘Lesbian,’” I exclaimed. “Oh,” Mike shot back instantly, “that would be too subtle for this production.”

 
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