The Playgoer: Theatre for Dummies (aka The New York Times)

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Theatre for Dummies (aka The New York Times)

Yes, this past weekend revealed the new Times arts policy that its theatre pages are now for people who hate theatre.

Need I even mention the "up close and personal" with Corey Feldman (yes, Corey Feldman) on the prized Sunday page? (I link only so you can believe it. Please don't read it.) The show he's in--a pop-opera greek-tragedy spoof of Fatal Attraction--might not be worthless. But don't expect to read much about that here. Jason Zinoman is usually a very knowledgeable and decent theatre reporter/critic, but has clearly been asked to check his brain for this assignment, for which he indulges the imagined reader's hunger for Michael Jackson and "Surreal Life" dish. It makes Isherwood's eerily similar tribute to Elizabeth "Don't Call me Showgirl" Berkeley (from a few Sundays back) seem like a Kenneth Tynan New Yorker profile in comparison.

Let me clarify something at this point: for the Times to profile a genuine movie star who happens to be appearing in a play would be an understandable capitulation to the economics of theatre and of theatre journalism. To lavish such valuable "real estate" on people barely qualified for reality tv must be a desperate ploy to lure readers of People and US Weekly who are turned off by anything to do with "culture". (I do not mean to prejudge the quality of either Berkeley's or Feldman's actual performance. But, hey, the Times isn't saying much about that either, notice.)

Now think back to Friday... Margo Jefferson's "Primer" on Avant-Garde Theatre. This is fascinating and insulting on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. No one has ever looked to the Times, anyway, for definitive coverage of the downtown scene or experimental artists. Perhaps this article is even a tacit admission of that. But the piece manages to be both enormously condescending and embarrassingly unknowledgable. First, it seems to be stuck in about 1965; "Don't look for a straightforward storyline" reads Rule #1, as if this is Life magazine telling us about that Godot play. Jefferson's examples of "the latest" in the avant-garde are not that much more up to date: Spalding Gray is dead, Laurie Anderson hasn't done a live New York show in years, and Karen Finley may still be prolific, but her groundbreaking chocolate-covered controversy was in 1990(!). Needless to say, Jefferson's commentary about even these artists (who, presumably, she knows better than more current practitioners) is surprisingly unspecific and unhelpful, given her stated purpose in writing.

Keep in mind Jefferson is officially the Times's avant-garde correspondent! (This after she was dismissed from her 2nd-string theatre beat for a series of baffling and ill-informed reviews. I always felt, with her notices, like I was reading the prose of a talented 10th-grader rush through the conclusion of her term paper.)

The article must be read to be fully appreciated for the inanity and vagueness of its arguments. (Is Jefferson's inarticulate, conversational golly-gee style an affectation or just masking real blind spots?) But what makes it even more disturbing is that the article is a barely-veiled free advertisement for the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival. Not only did it start on Page One of the "Weekend" section, but continued as a full-page spread within, including graphics and purchasing guide. (The price of full-page Friday arts advertising in the paper, by the way, is stratospheric.) Of course, since Jefferson can't speak first-hand of any productions of Georgio Strehler and Ariane Mnouchkine (or even Robert Wilson, apparently, about whom she says "His visual mastery can overwhelm his theatricality"--huh?) we get no useful guide to approaching their work at all. So instead we get her ramblings of whatever she has seen downtown over the last few decade (was DJ Spooky's riff on Birth of a Nation even considered "theatre"?), none of which is relevant to the specific festival offerings at all.

Some of the theatre events at the Lincoln Center Festival are indeed worth talking up--but wouldn't the Times reader be better served by them telling us, for instance, a little about who these directors are and what's the context of their work? Spare us all (informed and "novice" alike) the talking-down-to here, which doesn't really get more nuanced than this admonition about approaching Merce Cunningham (another young rebel!): "If you feel dizzy and disoriented at first, go with it."

(Note: I won't lump together with these nadirs Jonathan Kalb's Sunday piece on Mnouchkine and other "marathon" plays. The topic itself is typical Times--let's group theatre together based on running time!--but at least Kalb, as always, makes for some serious reading. If only he and Jefferson could have switched assignments.)


Anonymous said...

This is dead on.

Anonymous said...

Great post. The Sunday Arts & Leisure section is truly a disgrace.

Playgoer said...

Hands down, I rely on the Village Voice for my alternative theatre coverage. There's really no other regular media outlet that is as authoritative. (See their link on my blogroll). There's also a relatively new small paper, The Brooklyn Rail that has some decent theatre coverage (

Playgoer said...

One more site rec-- any account of Off-Off Broadway, of course, would be incomplete without the beloved OOBR! (Off-Off Broadway Review-- They're hardly expert in the avant-garde, nor particularly expert in much at all. But they certainly do coverage!

Jason Grote said...

Great post, but if I may add a piddling fact, Laurie Anderson was just at BAM a few months ago. But yeah, the NYT is more or less a joke... I think their power has much more to do with "industry" types that read their theater coverage, much more so than actual audiences..

Playgoer said...

I stand corrected, Jason, on L. Anderson's recent activity. Thanks. I stand by my point, though, that she's hardly as much of a force any more in the contemporary scene--ad also hardly typical of what Jefferson was supposed to be writing about!