The Playgoer: Fashionable Criticism

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fashionable Criticism

Year of Magical Thinking may be the "snob hit" of the season (despite lukewarm reviews). But the Slate--the online journal of choice for the elite cognoscenti--let one of its fashion writers, Amanda Fortini, review it. Here is how she describes one of the age's most formidable actresses, Vanessa Redgrave:

Her posture is pin-straight; she nods with schoolmarmish emphasis and gestures with her hands for accent. Not infrequently she enunciates with the polysyllabic care of an actress taking elocution lessons. (One of the play's more awkward moments is her nearly slow-motion pronunciation of lacunae.) Her acting, genuinely moving when she expresses grief or loss, too often feels like a caricature of the way a very fastidious woman would conduct herself.

...One wishes that Redgrave and director David Hare had found a means of theatrically telegraphing Didion's detached sensibility. Calista Flockhart's benumbed, almost affectless performance in Neil LaBute's Bash! several years ago comes to mind; or, more recently, Meryl Streep's restrained turn as the frosty, unflappable Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Didion should have been played slightly less demonstratively, with a bit more subtlety and, it might be said, control.
Is it just me, or are references to disembodied hand gestures, facial expressions (and accents) the last refuge of an impoversihed theatre critic. And one would hope one could call on a greater range of great actresses than Ally McBeal and Devil Wears Prada.

To be fair, the review demonstrates Fortini knows her Didion, and it's all very literate. But I would hope that Slate could do better when it comes to theatre. Then again, based on their lack of coverage, it sometimes seems they barely consider it an artform.

7 comments:

YS said...

I agree that the physical descriptions call to mind the local community theatre reviewer, ("John Doe had Great Facial Expressions!")

However, (and I know I will come off looking like a middlebrow apologist,) isn't Meryl Streep one of our greatest actresses? And Calista Flockhart has garnered some serious, (though sometimes mixed,) critical praise for her film AND stage work. Not to mention the readership at large knows and has probably seen Streep's turn in The Devil Wears Prada. And so any person who saw the film will understand exactly what the reviewer is talking about with regards to the comparison. Although, I will say that most people know Ally McBeal but not the stage performance of bash, (unless we include the Showtime movie.)

Anonymous said...

Love ya, Playgoer, but this just seems like carping for its own sake. I don't see any problem in using Streep and Flockhart as examples: Both are high-quality actors and familiar to general readers. And the critique of Redgrave's "hand gestures" is germane and requires no further descriptiveness, since the problem is not what kind of hand gestures she is using but the fact that she is using hand gestures at all (i.e. being too actressy).

June said...

I was going to stay out of this--full disclosure, I'm an editor at Slate and usually commission and edit theater coverage--since I don't want to be defensive, but two things demand a response.

1. "let one of its fashion writers review it"? Amanda Fortini does indeed usually write about fashion for Slate (and about many other topics for other publications), but what does that have to do with anything? Some of the best theater reviews are by folks who don't have the title "theater critic" on their business cards--including many, gasp, bloggers!

2. Vanessa Redgrave sits semi-motionless on a chair for 90 percent of the play. Believe me, in this case, the hand gestures are pretty key.

Heads up: Our Frost/Nixon review will be by a history professor. Enjoy!

The Playgoer said...

Point taken on the acting merits of both Streep and Flockhart... But one has to concede that "Year of Magical Thinking" and "Devil Wears Prada" are kind of worlds apart in tone, aren't they! And I guess "Bash" is a more serious endeavor than "Ally McBeal"--but then again, it IS a Neil LaBute play...

I'm just saying it's nice when a drama critic can draw on as wide a range as possible of past theatregoing experience.

Personally, if I were looking for a great example of an actress giving a subdued monotone performance, I would have went for Isabelle Huppert's near-catatonic rendition of "4:48 Psychosis". But hey, I'm a snob.

I'll also come fully clean that I have NOT seen Redgrave's performance in "Magical Thinking." I hope to see it, and if it IS an apt description, I'll tip my hat. But I get little sense from this review of any acquaintance with Redgrave's past performances. I don't meaning fawning and star-fucking in a Ben Brantley way. But that talk of "elocution lessons" sounds like the most tired cliche about English actors. How generic.

In short, my beef is not that I would necessary disagree with the ultimate judgment. It is just poor theatre criticism, beneath a publication purporting to be where it's at, culturally. (Sadly, this may be where the culture's at, theatrewise...)

Anonymous said...

But Playgoer, you have no idea whether or not it's "poor theatre criticism." You haven't seen the performance it (quite fairly and accurately) describes. Your critique seems to be based entirely on the notion that commenting on an actor's elocution and gesticulation somehow must mean amateur reviewing. But in this case those things are central to why Redgrave's performance doesn't work. I think Fortini pretty much nailed it.

John Branch said...

All I want to say is, will we get to see a Playgoer review of the show?

The Playgoer said...

It's definitely on my list of things to see. But since there's been NO blog-bribes on this, I'll have to pay myself! So I must admit I'm stalling for a good discount. Especially since it's hard to judge a one-person show from the balcony...