Oct 23, 2009

Lahr's Foote, and His Achilles Heel

I've had my issues with him in the past, but when John Lahr is on, no one can touch him. As with his recollection of Pinter or his profile of August Wilson, his recent profile of Horton Foote (alas, available only to subscribers) is a model of economy, grace, empathy, and insight--indeed, what's best and most astonishing about Lahr's piece is that its very qualities, its unruffled warmth and care, evoke the playwright's work at its best. It's hard not to note as well another quality Lahr shares with Foote: His lovingly handcrafted and felicitous prose is in part the product of a lifetime of observation and percontation. This is profile as performance, though not as a gonzo showpiece but an act of extraordinary interpretive sensitivity and subtlety. I just can't think of anyone else who does it this well.

On the other hand, in the same issue is Lahr's mixed-to-positive take on the roundly reviled new production of Bye Bye Birdie. While I cherish the priceless image of his father, Bert, having to pull the family Chevy off the road in hysterics the first time he heard Little Richard, I'm unpersuaded that the visceral kick of rock 'n' roll--the subject of Lahr's opening reverie--has anything do with Bye Bye Birdie, an enjoyable show at its best but not one with a score that anyone could mistake for rock 'n' roll. Let's just say that Charles Strouse's flimsy "rock" tunes make the synthetic score of the new Memphis, a musical also ostensibly about the siren song of early rock, sound positively rafter-shaking.

The downside, it seems, of Lahr's intimate familiarity with the world of mid-20th-century theater--the sort of facility that makes him capable of writing such great, fine-grained profiles--is that as a theatergoer he's got a huge soft spot for old shows, particularly musicals: He was almost alone in praising Des McAnuff's Guys and Dolls; he liked the Roundabout's Pal Joey more than many critics; he inexplicably adored the hash that Arthur Laurents has made of West Side Story (though to be fair, he was not as lonely in that view); and he famously claimed that the recent revival of The Pajama Game bested his memory of the original (that may be true, but why should we care?). That's not to say his show-review criticism doesn't also have piercing insights and flashes of uniquely Lahrian brilliance, but for me it's generally an unreliable barometer of a particular production's value.

Bottom line, it's a tradeoff I'll gladly accept: What Lahr lacks as an opening-night critic he more than makes up for as a positively irreplaceable longform critical reporter.

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