Jan 6, 2012

The Backwater

Los Angeles skyscrapers & Echo Park lake from Bigstock

It took me a while—about five or six years, I'd say—of trial and error to figure out where the best theater in Los Angeles was (it was my beat from the early '90s until 2005, when I moved to NYC). It took me less time to figure out that there was good theater in Los Angeles—theater that was worth considering on its own merits, irrespective of New York or national standards, worthy of awarding and comparatively weighing and discussing as if it were a real, thriving scene of its own. I saw a lot of really, really bad theater in L.A., and I soon grew to understand the unique reasons why L.A. has so much of it. But I also saw enough great stuff onstage there to convince me it was worth covering critically and intently (names dropped here).

Charles McNulty has been the chief critic at the Los Angeles Times for six years now, but if former-Times-reporter-turned-Times-gadfly Don Shirley is to be believed, McNulty still doesn't "get" that L.A. theater is worthy of his more-or-less undivided critical attention:
A lot of readers probably assume that the chief LA Times critic reviews or at least sees most of the better LA shows. But it ain’t necessarily so. I looked up the record of what McNulty wrote about in 2011, courtesy of one of the databases at the LA Public Library. I found 52 reviews of individual theater productions within LA and Orange counties (plus one review at Long Beach Opera and a RADAR L.A. commentary that included brief comments on several shows)...

McNulty also spent time in the major San Diego theaters, reviewing five shows at La Jolla Playhouse and four at the Old Globe (plus one at San Diego Rep, which he later re-reviewed when it came to LA)...

He didn’t write about any of the four 2011 shows that won the top production honors at last year’s Ovation Awards ceremony (A Raisin in the Sun, Kiss Me Kate, Small Engine Repair, Jerry Springer: the Opera), nor has he ever written (in his six years at the Times) about Troubadour Theater Company, which won the “best season” Ovation for the second time in three years.

He reviewed no 2011 shows at most of the companies that make up the middle tier of Equity-contracted LA theaters – the Colony, International City Theatre, East West Players, Theatricum Botanicum, Independent Shakespeare, the Falcon, Ebony Rep, Theatre West, Native Voices – nor did he write about anything at the larger musicals-only companies such as Musical Theatre West.
And so on. It's no secret that McNulty and his editors consider his beat to be major theaters in Southern California and in New York, with the latter city still providing the center of critical gravity in much of his writing (and, it must be said, in much of the Times' coverage). As I've mentioned before, McNulty's not the only critic racking up frequent-flier miles for Gotham check-ins: Chris Jones at the Chicago Trib and Peter Marks at WaPo each review a goodly number of major New York premieres (just as the NY Times' Ben Brantley makes regular trips to London and his colleague Charles Isherwood similarly treks with some frequency to Chicago). And it would obviously be insane for me, who works at a national theater magazine whose whole raison d'etre is to cover theater all across the country, to believe that readers only want to read about plays they can buy a ticket to see tonight.

That said, theater is inherently a local medium, and it seems reasonable to expect the theater critic at your local paper to cover your area's theater as his primary beat, and to expect that when he compiles a year-end "best of" list (a flawed exercise for slow news weeks, admittedly) or writes a think piece about the state of theater, he'll be considering primarily the theater in his coverage area. And what do you know: Here's Chris Jones' Chicago-only list for 2011, here's Peter Marks' all-D.C. list...and here is McNulty's: six Southland productions (Shirley, using a much more stringent standard, counts just two "L.A.-originated" works), plus two in London and three in New York. McNulty also offers this thoughtful essay pointing out other, smaller-theater favorites, though not quite in a list form. And the Times did offer this L.A.-only best-of list from its stringers.

The message sent by McNulty's uniquely divided focus seems clear: that theater in Southern California just isn't good enough to fill the local critic's top-11 list. Corollary: Sure, there are signs of promise (there are always those to be found), but stage work in a film town can't possibly provide a yardstick to be judged on its own terms. In my experience, artists in Los Angeles create bodies of work no less than artists in Chicago or New York or Louisville, and together and separately those artists create a larger corpus of work that's worth considering as a whole, even if the honest verdict after consideration is: It's all over the map. That's better than nowhere.

As someone who spent formative theatergoing years in L.A. (supplemented, I hasten to add, by theater tourism in New York, London, and Ashland) and then moved East, I can't expect someone who made the reverse journey, and who has infinitely more scholarship and experience than I (as David Cote points out here, McNulty has that edge on most of us), to see things exactly the way I did back when I loved (and hated, but with the passion of one who cared) L.A. theater. A critic's own often-lonely pursuit of his own honest opinions is as crucial and subjective as an artist's muse, so I can't question what seems to be McNulty's honest impression, after logging time (mostly) in L.A., that L.A.'s theater culture, though perhaps more substantial than Seattle's, is not ready for prime time. I don't even disagree with him that the region's larger theaters are mostly adrift, though I have to say that New York's large nonprofits hardly fare much better on the vision front.

The best backhanded compliment I can offer is this: McNulty has shown himself such an astute, thoughtful, and sensitive critic, with interesting, deeply informed, and often provocative things to say about the art form he covers, that it strikes me as a lost opportunity every time he applies those critical faculties to productions and trends miles away from his adopted hometown. If he wanted to correct course, he could do worse than to start with the Troubies.

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