The Playgoer: REVIEW: Linnea [Time Out New York]

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Friday, February 02, 2007

REVIEW: Linnea [Time Out New York]

Yes, another Time Out review.

Now don't get too excited by the photo. Those devil-horns were by far the raciest thing about this show.

I must confess to a kind of crisis of conscience on this one. Namely--I left the show wondering if it was even worth reviewing at all. I mean that not as the greatest possible insult but as a sign of respect, respect for the passion and enthusiasm of the people involved with the show and respect for what it was, given the somewhat sub-professional level of accomplishment.

Unfortunately in a wide-circulation print review, though, I feel it's a copout to say "A for Effort". People open up Time Out New York for info on professional entertainment. It's only responsible for me to let the readers know in no uncertain terms this does not rise to professional standards.

Of course my conscience did not prevent me from filing the review and getting paid. (Though not yet! Ahem, Mr. Cote...) But my doubts did inspire me to at least begin an open discussion with David as to how media outlets like Time Out (just one example of all the major media that do this) choose what to review. We both agreed that it's a shame to give valuable print space to say, "Oh by the way, this off-off b'way show you haven't heard of with no one you know about involved in it... go on ignoring it." Who does that help?

I don't mean "help" as in criticism doesn't "help." Exposing the flaws of prominent productions that are taken seriously by others is an essential function of criticism. (See Richard Gilman's famous contrarian essay "On Destructive Criticism.") But something like "Linnea" seems the result of some part-time theatre enthusiasts (no doubt with serious ambitions) who are just not ready for prime time. I'm all for letting them hone their craft out of the public eye until they have something really ready.

So, to return to the central question: why are they getting covered? Well the main reason is they pulled together the dough to hire a press agent! And, as we all know, it's press agents that get shows reviewed. Theatre editors sifting through the gazillion faxes and emails they received announcing indistinguishable souding performances are grateful for any filtering system--and when pr firms have good reputations it lends some stamp of worthwhile-dom.

But something has happened in the last few years, it seems. As David Cote put it to me: "Press representation for mediocre amateur theater is a thriving business I'm afraid." I hardly blame the Press Rep's for this. Hey, it's their business. A client is a client. They're in the promoting business, not criticism, aesthetics, or theatrical training.... What's regrettable to me, though, is that a lot of the shows I've been "assigned" to lately seem to have spent more effort and resources on their marketing than their content. I'm developing a theory that in the world of Off-Off Broadway at least, the glitziness of the marketing campaign and number of expensive print ads is inversely proportional to the quality of the show.

Victimless crime, you say? Maybe. I do get concerned, though, for the ticketbuyers out there who might assume that just because a show is reviewed in a respectable publication and has professional looking ads that it is actually on a par with Broadway or our finer O.B. nonprofits. In fact, such a slick looking "little show" is more often somewhere between vanity project and community theatre, dressed up to pass in the NYC scene.

Do you remember this show "Tryst" a couple of years ago? You know the one with that poster all over town with the shirtless hunk and the bodiced femme? What else does anyone remember about that one? Or the recent one-woman show "Duse"--if I got one more postcard or email reminding me that George Bernard Shaw said something nice about the real Duse a hundred years ago and therefore I should shell out $50 to see a fictional monologue about her dresser(!), I woulda...

Tell me if I'm wrong and you liked either of these. But it seems to me there was no reason for anyone to pay serious attention to either of them. Commercially mounted by basically wealthy armchair producers, the attention they got was bought by the pound and interest soon vanished once people saw the utterly conventional tired product.

Ban such shows? Of course not. But I hope our theatre culture in general can exercise more discretion (in the best sense of that word) and clearly separate the fledgling and (again, in the best sense) amateur efforts from the work of more accomplished and/or just adventurous artists--whether they can afford p.r. or not.

8 comments:

YS said...

One Seattle critic reviewed a small company's production of Oedipus that had an advertising photo of a man suckling at a breast.

He was very underwhelmed by the production and summed up his experience with these sorts of things this way:

"After pointing out the emergency exits and reminding us about cell phones, the dutiful curtain speaker always says, 'If you liked the show, please tell your friends. Word of mouth is the best advertising.' It is, at least, the most accurate. And a little more honesty in the marketing strategies ('A lackluster comedy—for friends of the cast only!') might improve the art form, restore some integrity, and woo back the confidence of an already wary public."

You can see the photo and read a little more about it here:

http://mirroruptolife.blogspot.com/2006/06/truth-in-advertisting-theatre-is.html

parabasis said...

Playgoer,

Is it worth remembering that both Duse's Fever and Tryst were flops? Does that in any way color the conversation? (really asking, not rhetorical).

Also, neither received any advance press attention. All they got was reviewed, so they didn't suck up that oxygen either. It seems that the press is fairly capable of seeing through such material for what it is.

The questions is why reviewers are dispatched to see such shows, which I think gets into the very problematic symbiotic industries of Press and Press Rep... didn't you once call getting a Press Rep "payola"?

JW said...

And speaking of suckling at a breast...you mention the Tryst poster, and then you go ahead and unnecessarily include the "sexay laday" photo from Linnea in your own entry, even as you denigrate its sex-appeal. Posting heteronormative eye-candy while denigrating shows who market themselves using heteronormative eye-candy is a little disingenuous, no?

Aaron Riccio said...

The only point I disagree with you on, Garrett, is that you seem to imply that a well-produced show is entitled to more coverage than an ill-produced play. There are plenty of bigger shows that Linnea, both on and off-Broadway that aren't much better (and some far worse), and we don't consider a review of those to be a waste of space because they alert the public to a show that is on their radar. But what puts a show like "Tryst" on the radar anyway? The same press agents that are trying to get critics out to see a show, and just because some shows can't take out a full-page half-naked ad, that doesn't mean we shouldn't provide them with coverage.

Also, what about those shows that ARE out of the public eye but ARE good? If critics stop attending off-off-Broadway shows so as to not waste space with the bad, they'll be punishing the brilliant works as well. Not everything runs at The Vineyard and gets noticed...

I guess the compromise you promote is that a critic attend a show but simply not write about it if it's terrible... which then gives the critic's singular opinion even more weight. The system may be imperfect now as it is, but at least describing an imperfect show allows the public to decide whether or not they trust the critic enough to actually stay away (or if their curiosity is piqued enough to go anyway). Giant man-eating rabbits aren't for everyone, but for the David Lynch-Monty Python fans out there, you may have just sold them on a show that they are in more of a position to enjoy than you give them credit for.

Dr. Cashmere said...

Or maybe editors and critics could actually do a little research on their own, summon up their reporting skills, etc., and actively work to find the interesting work off-off-Broadway that their readers should know about.

When political reporters base their articles exclusively on press releases and opposition research, they're accused, rightly, of being stenographers.

The NYT arts section isn't guilty of that offense, exactly. But the same combination of laziness and apathy is in play in both cases.

Alison Croggon said...

Erm - I thought a critic was supposed to be the canary in the mine, and to bravely go forth to sort the fresh air from the sulphurous gases...PR or not PR. Though I take your point about notice. Still, everyone ought to get a chance, fluff or no fluff.

Isn't every show, as we like to say, a punt (a bet)? Here we call audience members punters, for that reason.

David Cote said...

Speaking as an editor and critic, I can assure the appalled posters that yes, I know what's happening Off-Off Broadway. TONY covers the scores of companies and playwrights who make Off-Off Broadway an scene. I am also keenly aware of the need to sniff out the new blood. Easier said than done, especially as I work a desk and my freelancers aren't paid to barge in on rehearsals in Brooklyn. Or spend every night of the week seeing a show just on the off-chance of striking gold. It is simply impossible to see everything out there. I rely on word of mouth from my theater friends, reports from my freelancers, company websites, press releases and, yes, the press reps, who are probably the least reliable source. However, they are a necessary part of the theater ecology. Is a company that scrapes together $2500 or so to hire a rep inherently more talented, professional, worth covering? No, of course not. But they're in a better position to articulate their need for coverage than an anonymous-looking, badly written press release sent from someone's Yahoo account at a temp assignment. As far as reps go, the ideal situation would be if they were more choosy: I'd rather hear from a rep who cherry-picked their clients. But then, they have to pay bills, too. But please, give us a little more credit than simply going to shows because press reps tell us to. Well, give me credit; I can't speak for my competition.

George Hunka said...

I have to agree with David here. Believe me, I've been on ALL sides of the fence (and there are far more than two), and I don't think the problem is with press reps at all, but with editors who aren't aware of trends in contemporary theatre or performance art -- and the less established those trends, the less money producers have to spend on publicity, and the fewer reviews they'll garner in the press. A sensitive editor, like David, is well aware of trends of theatre and performance art. As he notes, a sensitive editor can see through the glitz of a buzz-filled press release. He can also read between the lines of a press release that may not have the professionalism of one that does; he may recognize names, ideas, trends. (Without a doubt, it is harder to recognize these latter, but that's where the sensitivity comes in.)

I'm familiar with press reps both good and bad, and the best, I can affirm from personal acquaintance and experience, even when they don't cherry-pick their clients, believe strongly in the work they're publicizing; in that world, too, word gets around, and a smart artistic director will hire not the cheapest or glitziest press rep, but the press rep most likely to describe a show to an editor in a way that makes it attractive for coverage. That does take a certain amount of belief and sensitivity itself.