The Playgoer: Nadirs of Criticism

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nadirs of Criticism

I have long suspected the theatre credentials of Times 2nd-stringer Neil Genzlinger. With his slick yet chatty prose--a lowbrow Anthony Lane, if you will--he may be easy and pleasant to read, but the style really does seem to cover up a lack of substance. Or should I say, lack of knowledge. He's a fine choice for the Times to send to cover kitschy schlock like Batboy. But faced with a rare revival of a complicated obscure classic the likes of Sor Juana de la Cruz's House of Desires, he is clearly out of his depth.

Typical, easy (in other words, lazy) remark from his review today:

The playwright was a nun and proto-feminist in Mexico, and there is perhaps some curiosity value in a play written by a woman in the late 1600's. The main lesson of this work, though, is that women were just as capable as men of writing forgettable, not very farcical farces.

This line may look good on the NYT Arts web page as a hook. We can't fault Genzlinger as a journalist, I suppose. But think for a moment how ignorant that is, not to mention offensive-- insulting not just to Sor Juana, to women, but to Times readers and theatre audiences.

Current interest in Sor Juana goes way beyond some nutty fringe "curiosity." As we continue to reassess the importance of Renaissance drama outside of Shakespeare, the contributions to the form from other cultures, and from women, has transformed the field in academia and by theatre artists. (The text of this production was originally commissioned for the RSC.) New York Times readers (the quintessential "cultural elite") deserve to know this. We have a right to expect their arts & culture critics to be up on things like that. After all, do we not look to them as some sort of "authorities" in their field?

Genzlinger doesn't even seem to care. His review today is embarrassing in so glibly mocking the play for being, well, "old" (he calls it a "corpse" that's "DOA") and not at all taking into account the possible shortcomings of a production in realizing a challenging text. From what I hear, first of all, the play is severely cut and I know of no previous endorsement of the proficiency of the company/artists involved. I know readers out there would agree with me that many inadequate stagings of, say, Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream might have led to momentary doubts about their author's worth--but thankfully we have centuries of production history and scholarship to counter that. Many today who pick up Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters may be baffled by the respect given to that silly slapstick-fest--until they see a brilliant recreation of its original context on stage, such as that offered by the late Georgio Strehler in his Arlecchino this past summer.

Look, I admit to not knowing this play. But when you hear that the author was a missionary nun in Mexico, don't you assume her intentions might not have just been to write a stupid sitcom? Perhaps there are good reasons House of Desires (or, in another translation House of Trials) has never caught on in the English-speaking theatre and perhaps its moment has passed. But such dismissal of potentially revealing material as junk is beneath any critic outside of Entertainment Weekly.


Anonymous said...

I agree. If I had to choose, I'd prefer a critic to dismiss a play I already know something about than a play like House of Desires. To get gushy (I'm in a hurry), this play could change my life, but I wouldn't have given it a second thought after catching that hook line--I didn't even want to read the review.

Anonymous said...

Genzlinger is very shallow and glib; in his reviews, he practically boasts of his ignorance of a subject or lack of interest in it. Perhaps he or his editors think he's being a mildly amusing "Everyman" critic. For certain light-entertainment assignments, he could be well-suited, but when the Times sends him to productions such as Super Vision at BAM, I really have to wonder what they're thinking. On a side note: Have you read Rachel Shteir's essay about the supposedly sad state of NY theater criticism, in the journal Theater? It has me hopping mad.

Anonymous said...

Like Margo J, Neil G is a "playwright" and, like Margo, his bitterness at not having "made it" is everywhere evident...