Monday, May 18, 2009

It's over, Ed

Seen at the Elliot Norton Awards.

Over at the Globe (yes, it still exists), Ed Siegel is waxing sentimental about - wait for it - the good old days of the 60's and 70's, under the headline, "Does theater need to play it safe?" (answer: no).

Ed begins with a touching personal note:

When Al Pacino came to town Monday to pick up an Elliot Norton Award for the late Paul Benedict, his friend and former colleague at TCB, it proved that all the talk about the company was more than empty nostalgia. Amazing things happened on Theatre Company stages that provided a lifetime of memories for audiences and actors alike. It was a treat being a fly on the wall Monday night as Pacino and Wheeler reminisced with other Theatre Company alumni, including Paul Guilfoyle and Jan Egleson, about working on plays with Benedict.

Of course it's always nice to remember when - but sorry, Ed, that's still just empty nostalgia; the Theatre Company of Boston closed over thirty years ago, and however amazing it may have been, it had far more lasting impact, it seems, on our critics than on our actual theatre scene. And even its artistic quality I'm a little suspicious of (although I'm sure seeing Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman up close and personal was exciting), largely because of Siegel's own testimony. (A year or two ago he made this claim about Benedict in the ART's No Man's Land - "[David] Wheeler and Benedict excel in the same way that they did 40 years ago" - and even compared watching Benedict to viewing Michelangelo's "David" - when to be blunt, Benedict was slightly wrong for the part and wasn't all that interesting.)

But Ed's trip down memory lane does add a certain explanatory penumbra to the recent Elliot Norton Awards, which seemed centered on dead actors (Benedict) and former television reviewers (Joyce Kulhawik). I've been ridiculing the Nortoners recently, because the list of awards they give out keeps shrinking, their emphasis on celebrity grows more and more obvious, and of course many of them have lost or are losing the very jobs that supposedly give the awards their prestige. (Yes, before you say it, I know the IRNEs have their issues, too!) But suddenly I see them in a more touching light - they are, indeed, the last of the dinosaurs, gazing back fondly on a Jurassic park of "edgy," somehow "subversive" "masterpieces" that they've been longing to see replicated for most of their careers. Indeed, sometimes I feel that much of the city's critical community - and thus in some ways the city itself - has never really graduated from the BU School of Communications; we seem stuck either there or in the BU Theatre Dept., circa, oh, 1972. (You can feel much the same atmosphere in the critical outrage over the closing of the Rose - "But this is radical art from the 60's!" you can almost hear the aging reviewers wailing.)

Ed himself makes no bones about his radical nostalgia - indeed he singles out the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater for special mention, for an obvious reason:

In many ways, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater has been the closest thing we've had to Theatre Company of Boston. Wheeler and Benedict even staged "The Unexpected Man" there. But Jeff Zinn has had his own aesthetic, one that centered on edgy, contemporary work by the likes of Martin McDonagh and Tracy Letts.

Need I even mention that Jeff Zinn is the son of BU radical avatar Howard Zinn? No, I don't think so. Which isn't to say that I'd rather have one of Mitt Romney's kids running a local theatre! But isn't there something tired and a bit silly about this whole "BU '72" worldview, especially given that the technological and personal revolutions it has promoted are making it economically obsolete? (Indeed, Siegel's theatrical vision couldn't even work in the 70's - the Theatre Company of Boston went under.) You can feel that Siegel and his ilk were never really able to grasp, much less grapple with, the fact that America turned away from their vision and elected Ronald Reagan not once, but twice - and that there have been epoch-making transformations in the ongoing co-optation of the right and left ever since. Strangely, this political history seems to have no place in their discourse; they simply keep burrowing into some sort of Brookline-Newton niche of pseudo-enlightened liberalism. This is the deep nostalgia lurking behind the superficial schmaltz of hob-nobbing with Wheeler and Pacino.

And can we talk about "risk" for just a moment, Mr. Siegel? By which I mean critical risk? I'm curious as to whether you consider yourself an example of a reviewer known for throwing caution to the winds, damning the torpedoes, and publishing truly daring critical thinking. Because I don't think anyone else thinks of you that way - and if that is your self-image, I'd like to hear exactly what risks you've taken. I'm also curious as to why you feel Tracy Letts and Martin McDonagh are so edgy - McDonagh's derivative, and Letts is skilled but slightly incoherent. I mean, I don't recall you promoting Howard Barker or Sarah Kane or anyone really "dangerous" during your career. So do you yearn for risk, but only on the part of playwrights and producers and actors, rather than critics? Is that your true vision? Because if so, at least you can rest assured you've achieved it.

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