The Playgoer: Adam and Ish

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Friday, October 07, 2011

Adam and Ish

Times critic Charles Isherwood today finally addresses the long obvious, barely under the surface tension between him and playwright Adam Rapp, whose work he has consistently, um...disliked. And so he is now taking the seemingly unprecedented step of offering to recuse himself from any future Rapp reviews.

Contrary to popular myth, drama critics don’t salivate at the chance to savage a playwright’s work. It’s still less appealing to continue doing so, year in and year out. Who wants to be cast as the playground bully who won’t leave the poor kid alone? I have passed on reviewing a couple of Mr. Rapp’s plays during my tenure at the Times. Caryn James called “American Sligo” “keenly observed and wonderfully acted and directed (by the playwright).” His new play, like many of his works, provoked wildly diverse responses from critics, ranging from unqualified enthusiasm to unbridled dismay (mine).
But aside from that hope-springing-eternal thing, I have felt I should keep reviewing Mr. Rapp’s work because he is produced at some of New York’s most prestigious not-for-profit Off Broadway companies, and often attracts significant acting talent....

For similar reasons, however, one could argue – and one is! — that perhaps it’s time to allow Mr. Rapp’s writing to be assessed by a critic who responds more naturally or sympathetically to his aesthetic. Criticism is, after all, a subjective form of writing. There is no right answer. And since the artistic staff at some of the city’s major theaters – and a deep roster of acting talent – obviously appreciates something in Mr. Rapp’s writing that I continually do not, perhaps it would be in everyone’s best interests to let another writer weigh in on Mr. Rapp’s future work. The Times is fortunate enough to have a pretty deep roster of critics.

Obviously a critic would not want to recuse him or herself from writing about any and all artists whose work he or she doesn’t care for.....But Mr. Rapp’s stupendously fertile output – and the by-now obvious discordance between our ideas of what constitutes a compelling work of theater – make him a singular case. 
I well remember Isherwood's review of Rapp's big "uptown" debut at Playwrights Horizons in 2007 (Essential Self Defense) which sharply exposed the uptown/downtown fissure in the New York theatre community. Specifically I'm thinking of the line where Ish mocked the playwright and his style as more befitting "funky bars in Williamsburg, Brooklyn." (Yes, NYT had to make sure readers did not think "Mr. Rapp" was some tricorner-hatted denizen of Colonial Williamsburg.) Although I didn't see the play myself, I sensed even then that Isherwood was simply on the wrong "beat" as a critic. And that unless the paper wants to deliberately send to downtown plays a representative of the New York Times class, as a kind of ambassador or travel-writer to pass on recommendations to readers about "native" theatrical fare, they might indeed provide a greater service by sending someone who is at least....well, more hip to the jive. Someone who can translate the natives' language, as it were.

Anyway, kidding aside, I actually find Isherwood's honesty refreshing and admirable for a critic and think he's essentially right. Although, ideally, he wouldn't have to step down from the Rapp beat if the Times had a more interesting approach to reviewing, like having multiple critics weigh in on the same show. But barring that, they should take him up on his offer. I mean, after all, it's not like they have the classical music critic review Beyoncé.

(PS. Nice NYT shoutout above to Stagegrade!)


Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

I can only imagine what Itamar Moses must be thinking.

Playgoer said...

Hmm, good point, Rob. This "do not review" list of Ish's might have be longer than he expected...

Edward Einhorn said...

I am torn about the issue, but I appreciate Isherwood's unexpected introspection. I am put in mind of the reviewer Willborn Hampden, an occasional contributor to the Times (who wrote my first Times review as it happens). For years, he would review plays I thought were exceeding dull and unimaginitive--and love them. It baffled me. Then one day he was assigned to a Richard Foreman show, and he gave it the worst review I have seen outside of John Simon. Was it wrong to assign him to Foreman when it was clear it was something he would hate? Was it right to assign him to every show at The Pearl, which he gave a good review to regardless of quality (or at least quality as I perceived it)? I don't know. The Pearl was certainly buoyed by his reviews, and maybe finding the right reviewer helped keep the Pearl afloat. Was his opinion invalid because it was different than mine? It was hard for me to feel otherwise. Mine was right and his was wrong. But I'm sure he would feel the same about my opinions--he certainly felt that way about my art (disclaimer--he gave me a very dismissive review). Perhaps matching the critic to the show and actually trying to find a person who will respond to the art should be common practice. And the fact that Hampden was never assigned to Foreman again makes me think that, in fact, it may be common practice in some cases. It's the natural instinct. When Mel Gussow was the second stringer, he reviewed much more experimental theater than Isherwood. He reviewed it because he was knowledgeable about it. But he was knowledgeable about it because it was something he was particularly interested in. So of course his reviews were much more favorable than someone who is drawn more strongly to Broadway fare.

Edward Einhorn