Feb 10, 2006

Weekend Reading

In his Right Kind of People review, Brantley displays his knack for memorable if less than appetizing images: "a symphony of flapping gums."

Is there any better, suppler writer about theater than Isherwood? From his new review of Red Light Winter, some favorites: a throwaway image, describing two bachelors who've "recently hit the wall of the big 3-0 at different speeds"; nailing a character as "one of those appalling types who manage to harness the juvenile aggressiveness that was somehow alluring in college to fuel a successful career"; this lovely and unaccountably precise metaphor: "Matt's anxious streams of chatter are gradually smoothed into clear pools." But he's not just a wordsmith, he's as much a pleasure to read in toto.

Over at the other Times, Prof. McNulty clocks in with a slightly supererogatory but inarguable and erudite lecture on Chekhov, and continues to stretch out more comfortably into his lead critic role with this Mamet takedown. F. Kathleen Foley's review of East West's new Sweeney brought back fond memories of the original.

Finally, this beautiful blog entry by the redoubtable Terry Teachout certainly cheered me up, as I recently made yet another turn around that lucky old sun.

Off into a five-show weekend storm, snow and light blogging expected.

10 comments:

frank's wild lunch said...

I might be inclined to agree, but shouldn't that be "one...who manages?" I'm just sayin'....

Rob Kendt said...

I see you are one of those nitpicky types who like to catch us critics out in our tiny errors. Nice try, though.

frank's wild lunch said...

With all due respect, Rob, while I intended the comment to be light-hearted, I don't consider myself a nit-picky type, nor do I like to "catch critics in errors." I am, however, surprised to see those kinds of errors (however tiny you may find them) in the New York Times.

I will also admit to lacking the admiration you have for Isherwood, who has so often treated young, ambitious playwrights with a smug dismissiveness that I find distasteful. In any case, I feel strongly that critics of writers do not deserve praise for sloppy writing, regardless of the richness of their descriptions.

Jason Grote said...

Welp, I can't say that I'm surprised to ind any errors at all in the NYT. There was that big WMD one not too long ago, and the Jayson Blair thing and the Wen Ho Lee thing. I know, I know, it ain't the theater section, but I think the culture is somewhat similar, Isherwood being a case in point. I don't deny that he's deft with the turn(s) of phrase, but when it comes to criticism he's careless and sloppy, with an infatuation with his own power and mediocre taste, at best. I don't think that Isherwood owes new playwrights (or anyone else) kid gloves, but the fact remains that he is far kinder to celebrities than to emerging artists. If he actually begins to engage with the work he covers (whether he's nice about it or not is irrelevant), I'll be the first to sing his praises - but cleverly-written lousy criticism is still lousy criticism.

Jason Grote said...

That was supposed to read "Find any errors." Heh.

Rob Kendt said...

Thanks for the comments and the correction. It's good to see, Jason, that you are one of the conscientious types who are big enough to correct their own errors. For my part, I am one of those critics who do not wear kid gloves. And I think Charles is one of those writers who do more than simply turn nice phrases. I am assuming that you are also one of those observant readers who get my (grammatical) drift here.

Jason Grote said...

Maybe I am thick - or just tired - but I'm not sure I do get your drift... Does it have something to do with the fact that it's unwise for an unknown playwright (me) to publicly excoriate a powerful critic? I hope that isn't what you mean, because that would mean we've frightened ourselves into an unimaginably boring landscape. If that is what you mean, then that kind of proves my point - because the NYT has the power to close a show, it rules by fear and there's no accountability there. But perhaps that's not what you mean.

I stand by my assertions that the three main theater critics at the NYT are all about power. I'm not insane enough to have sifted through all of Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood's reviews to corroborate this, but I have, more than once, seen plays with film stars that they've raved about, or at least been kind to, that were hobbled by some kind of impossible-to-miss, unequivocal awfulness. Like a famous actress talking for 120 consecutive minutes in a community-theater British accent. On the other hand, everyone has in the blogosphere about how Ishewrwood has set the careers of Groff, Moses, and Haidle back by a few years, maybe ended them (if they decide to go into TV or something). Now, his criticisms of said writers may have had some justification, but when one looks at them in the contexts of celebrity and clout, it becomes clear that there's a double-standard at work, one that appears to be pervasive throughout the paper.

I will get reviewed by the Times, eventually. Knowing the circles I work in, I will probably get reviewed by Jason Zinoman, and I've been really nasty to him in various fits of pique (though I have commended him too, on occasion). I'm trying to be more thoughtful in my critique of the critics, not because of fear, but because it's so easy to be a dick on the internet and I'm trying to be more civil.

I have no illusions - I am sure that if I make a pain in the ass of myself, the reviewers I go after (really just the ones at the NYT) will surely take their revenge. I have been in contact with publicists from my short tenure at the NEW YORK PRESS and my editor position at THE BROOKLYN RAIL, and it's kind of an open secret how corrupt the theater reviewing racket can be. But ya know, I don't trust most of the NYT reviewers to be fair to me anyway, and frankly I don't write the sort of thing their readership usually goes for, so why not do what I think is right?

If I've misunderstood your drift, apologies for the rant. But I'm all for diffusing power, and the NYT seems to be one of the few powerful entities left in theater.

Jason Grote said...

That would be, "everyone in the blogosphere has been talking..." or something to that effect. I think that was an edit that got away. I'll let the typos speak for themselves.

Rob Kendt said...

Jason, please by all means bring the pain to Isherwood or anyone you want. That's what this is all about. I think the day when the Times itself ventures into the world of blogs will be a good day for everyone on both sides of the aisle. My drift, if you want to know, was that the original comment about Isherwood's "error" was itself in error. I thought you might be one of the types who manage to read carefully, since you read reviews so intently. Keep the comments coming!

Jason Grote said...

Ah. I figured I was just being paranoid, but have been interested in this topic anyway... Of course, I have heard warnings to lay off, but those have come, ironically, from other theater bloggers, in the form of third-hand warnings from some friend at the NYT. It's remarkable how much fear there is in a field with such little money in it.

And Rob, as fond as I am of your blog, don't worry that I'm going to start stalk-posting - I'm just stranded in Denver due to inclement weather and this beats working on what I'm supposed to be doing (which is, ironically, a think-piece for an English journal on why some critics seem to adore Martin McDonaugh and Neil LaBute so much; that and the deal with that THOM PAIN review. Though I do like Will Eno.

That's the funny thing - were you to get Isherwood and I in a room, we would probably agree more than we disagree, especially about Sarah Ruhl. But the devil is in the details...