The Playgoer: EXIT JOHN SIMON

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

EXIT JOHN SIMON

New York Theatre cognoscenti are abuzz--mostly gleefully--this week about the outright dumping of critic John Simon by New York Magazine after 37 years of memorably mean reviews. Perhaps the real "butcher of Broadway" (if Frank Rich would deign to share the title), Simon always seemed to enjoy--nay, cultivate--the hatred of theatre artists by never holding back the awful catty things we all might say at the bar at intermission but never consider "criticism." (Hence the pleasure/disgust in reading him would be My God, he didn't just review her breasts, did he???) In his Mittel-Europa/ old white guy way, he was actually our shock-jock of the Great White Way, but cloaked in the trappings of cultural snobbery. He deployed his learned English tongue as a weapon indeed, to smokescreen the tawdriness of his comments underneath the cleverest cocktail party discourse. What this all amounted to may have been bankrupt criticism... but also undeniably engaging to read.

To be fair, Simon loved the theatre, and at least had about 50 years of experience with it by the end. To read him celebrate his cherished cultural icons--like the neglected Schnitzler--could even be moving. Then again, he also exhibited a weird soft spot for goofy musicals with leggy chorus girls, and--if memory serves--Tom Sellek's tour de force in A Thousand Clowns! Interestingly, his replacement at New York, the Sun's Jeremy McCarter, is not yet 30. (Playgoer shudders at this thought, but maybe will recover upon actually reading McCarter. The New York Sun pay-only website is of no help--sorry no link for you, Sun!) No doubt this age difference is only a plus--if not the precipitator--of Simon's firing to begin with. For all of Simon's elder statesman status, no one can claim he was very relevant to the scene anymore. (You never saw him quoted-- and he did like things sometimes. ) It's still Ben Brantley's world on that front, so we're probably lucky New York didn't cancel the column altogether. By going with McCarter, they're more likely going head-to-head with Time Out--increasingly the bible of those under 40 who actually think every once in a while of checking out something "live" that's not in a club.

Finally, let's remember Simon was, all in all, a true conservative. (Remember, he wrote movie reviews for National Review!) This will come as no surprise to those who have been following his "un-p.c." escapades these many years (e.g., his obsession with actors' racial attributes and, oh, joking about AIDS relieving him of all those "faggot" plays). But without forgiving Simon his meaner excesses, one can appreciate the value of a broader spectrum of theatrical commentary. Let's have a good right-wing critic in New York! Any reminder that conservatives may care about the theatre anymore is at least heartening...

For an intro or refresher course on Simon's style and occasional substance, catch his archive at New York online before they destroy the evidence! But wait, there's more-- they haven't slammed the door on the old guy yet. Look for his "farewell column" next week, when he's scheduled to file on what show....? Sweet Charity! I sure hope he doesn't disappoint us by liking it...

(PS: Speaking of conservative critics, Playgoer is not a reader of Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal, but getting interested, after seeing a C-Span talk around the cauldron of the American Enterprise Institute. And let's find out more about McCarter himself. Are the Arts pages of the New York Sun immune from the rest of their paleo-politics?)

1 comment:

Dr. Cashmere said...

McCarter was the only critic to voice serious reservations about the flawed Glengarry Glen Ross revival currently on Broadway. So he earns points for that.

Sadly, the combination of a classic play and a star-studded cast seems to have caused a brain freeze among the rest of the critical community. (Including the folks at the Tony's, incidentally.)