The Playgoer: Brustein calls out NYT

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Brustein calls out NYT

Lest anyone assume it's just the young bloggers that rip on the Times arts coverage, they have nothing on Robert Brustein, who offers quite the tongue-lashing, old school, at the new New Republic blog.

How's this for starters:

Consider The New York Times, an organ on which so many of us depend for clarity and balance. It is ironic that the same newspaper that editorializes so eloquently against corruption in the political administration now bears so much responsibility for helping to corrupt our culture. Look what has happened, for example, to the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" pages, once popularly known as the "Drama" section, and now often indistinguishable from the "Style" section of the same newspaper. In the past, it used to routinely publish numerous background features, reviews, and idea pieces about theatre in New York and elsewhere. Today, its front page is largely devoted to columns about the careers and collisions of rock, rap, and hip-hop stars, when it is not running multiple stories about "American Idol."
The impetus for this calling out seems to come from some inside dope he's gotten on the Times' treatment of the new Oliver Twist that just opened. Produced by Theatre For A New Audience, it also happens to have originated at ART, where Brustein used to be the head, but no longer. (As to who will be now after Robert Woodruff was dropped is still a mystery. But anyhoo...)

Here is where I disclose that I too have some personal connection to TFANA, namely that I once worked there, albeit 10 years ago. I also saw the Oliver Twist, as their guest, and liked it a lot. I am now motivated to write more about it, hopefully before it closes Sunday. All the disclosure aside, I'll just say it's a very striking production by a very exciting director/adapter Neil Bartlett--a name well known to anyone familiar with British political ensemble theatre. In short, this production is less like Oliver! The Musical than John Doyle's Sweeney Todd meets Gangs of New York meets Three Penny Opera.

And that apparently was the New York Times' problem with it. I remember reading that review, shocked that descriptions such as the following were meant to be bad things:
Contributing to this absence of feeling is a lighting design that illuminates the actors from below. The effect is to have them looking like specimens to be observed in a vitrine. And it hardly helps that at various points the actors telegraph the story’s plot points and themes in a sobering, clerical a capella.
If you're like me, you might say, "sounds kind of cool!" In short, the play's deliberate rejection of "sentimentality" and "melodrama" were listed as its chief faults, as opposed to its contrarian strategy.

While Brustein may be reacting on TFANA's behalf to yet another New York Times bad review, the more revealing part of his complaint is his story of the lengths to which the AD--my old boss, Jeffrey Horowitz--had to go to even get the Grey Lady to come! The ultimate delayed, abridged "courtesy" write-up simply added injury to insult, to coin a phrase.

What Brustein doesn't mention, though, is that TFANA--a company long hailed for its daring Shakespeare productions--has never been on the Times must-see list. I always wondered if they just didn't have good enough press rep's. Sometimes they get a feature article, but often their shows are only reviewed a week late, and never by the first-string critic. They're a very small (i.e. poor) company that just will never attract the kind of coverage automatically bestowed on the rich companies like Lincoln Center, Roundabout, and the Public. But you also gotta wonder after a decade of snubs if somebody up there at NYT Arts just doesn't like them.

But back to Brustein:
Reasonable people can differ about the quality of a work of art. What is less open to argument is the way the Times often ignores or dismisses the more significant artistic achievements of the year, while exalting the sensational, the tawdry, and the inane. (Sarah Ruehl's A Clean House, a superficial domestic sit-com featuring a cartoon Latino maid who wants to be a standup comic, solicited one of Isherwood's few positive reviews this year.) What is also inarguable is the way the Times often reduces a production to its function as a saleable or fashionable commodity, while still continuing to anoint itself as "the central arbiter of taste and culture in the city of New York." [the words recently attributed to its Managing Editor]

....No wonder so many people are turning away from the New York stage when producers, in an effort to please the Times's critics, offer such disposable trivia at such exorbitant ticket prices? Who at that newspaper is now preparing to write the obituary of the American theatre it has been helping to bury through artistic injustice and critical neglect?
Is it fair to keep ganging up on the Times? I'm sure individual writers are doing their best to cover theatre well. And maybe its role as "arbiter of culture" is not self-appointed, but in fact bestowed upon them by us, their readers. Lately I feel a need to stop even citing them as often as I do, to more proactively seek out theatre coverage from other outlets, just to demonstrate theatre coverage need not be a one-party state.

That may be the most effective media criticism. Angry letters to the editor will likely be dropped in the wacko file. But looking elsewhere for your arts coverage--that may get their attention.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

You had me until "ganging up on the Times." Seriously, I know you meant that tongue in cheek, but until others (media outlets, bloggers, etc.) exceed The New York Times level of influence - real or imagined - they're fair game.

And seriously (really!), you've once again demonstrated why you're writing the most interesting, vital theatre blog out there today.

Rocco said...

I have to agree, its hard to make an argument that they're not the Arbiter of Taste, and then continue linking to them on a regular basis.

I've been making an effort not to, as well. But then the effect is only mentioning the NYT when its about something negative, which also gives the wrong impression I think.

Anonymous said...

Reality check here: The Times devotes the column inches it does to theater because theaters advertise in the Times. The theaters that never advertise (because it's superexpensive) don't get automatic reviews.

I'm not saying the big theaters buy reviews, it's simply the economics of newspapers.

Anonymous said...

The argument may be strong in its general terms, but in its specific terms it's weak: Oliver Twist was, indeed, dull (and I'm a fan of Neil Barlett). The Brechtian objectivity was, in the end, contrary not just to received opinions of the play but to the Dickens aesthetic as well, and the company couldn't find a way to make that gap compelling.

Playgoer said...

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