Monday, June 13, 2011

Is critical ignorance critical bliss?

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone.
It doesn't much happen anymore, but for a period of years I often found myself facing a friendly question like this one:

"Oh - you're a critic? What did you think of Vanya on 42nd Street? That film was a-mazing. The best production of Chekhov I've ever seen!"

Now I immediately knew from this statement that:

a) the speaker was not a regular theatregoer, and what's more,

b) he or she had never seen a good production of Chekhov (if, in fact, they'd ever seen any Chekhov at all).

Now if you, like me, have seen a lot of Chekhov - some of it shattering - and have also suffered through the pretensions of Vanya on 42nd Street, you immediately appreciate my quandary in such a conversation - and indeed the general quandary of the knowledgeable critic in an ignorant world: how do you stay honest without pissing off your audience?

Nobody likes to be told they're aesthetically clueless, after all - (I don't, either) - and frankly, there are a few good moments in Vanya on 42nd Street (mostly in the last act), although nobody delivers anything close to a great performance, Julianne Moore gets by on her smile, and Wallace Shawn and Brooke Smith are terrible.  Indeed, what's poignant about fans of V on 42 is that you can only imagine how they might respond to the real thing - although you also worry it might be too much for them.  They've gone to a movie that offers a glimpse here and there of Chekhov's richness, and they're stunned; they think it's a-mazing; but does that mean they could appreciate a truly great production, or does it mean that director Andre Gregory precisely calibrated how much to spoon-feed them?

I guess we'll never know.  And to be completely honest, I sometimes wonder - how would I react to V on 42 if I were more ignorant of Chekhov in performance?  Would I be dazzled, too?

All these thoughts were stirred, believe it or not, by a recent trip to The Drowsy Chaperone at SpeakEasy Stage.  I wasn't going to review it officially - since SpeakEasy signed the infamous letter protesting my membership in the IRNE organization, I've taken a more - well, disillusioned view of their "friendly" solicitousness.  Still, the partner unit was clamoring to catch Chaperone (as he'd never seen it), and I figured it was right up SpeakEasy's alley, so, yes, we actually paid to see it.

But then the production came pre-sold with a vengeance.  I can't think of a single negative review, in fact.  A brief survey:

"Exhilarating! (The Globe); "It's impossible not to love every minute!" (The Edge); "This one is once in a lifetime . . ." (Boston Theatre Review); "Not even Stephen Sondheim could resist . . ." (Boston Phoenix); "Excellent . . . " (The Arts Fuse) . . . well, you get the idea.  The local response was summed up for me by a friend who gushed just before the curtain rose that, "This performance is perfect.  I cannot imagine a better performance.  A better production would be impossible!"

Sigh.  Needless to say, soon after the actors took the stage, I quickly realized that . . . yes, a far better production of The Drowsy Chaperone was not only possible, but I'd actually seen it.

So the Vanya on 42nd Street phenomenon had struck again, in almost every detail.  For don't get me wrong - the SpeakEasy production was fun, yes - and it gave you some idea of what The Drowsy Chaperone is all about.  But at the same time it was too broad by half, the set was a little crude, the cast a bit uneven, and the dancing (never a SpeakEasy strength) was sweetly amateurish.

How do I know all this?  I'd like to imagine it's because I can perceive the true reach of the original material, but I'm sure many would claim it's only because I saw the far-superior New York tour (which included some of the original Broadway cast).  The problem in that theory, of course, is that I can imagine an even better production than that tour; it was hardly flawless.  But it had an emotional resonance - almost a poetic dimension - that the flat, brightly ironic strokes of the SpeakEasy production lacked.  (Amusingly, one Boston critic - the Phoenix's Carolyn Clay - actually insisted that the national tour was inferior!  She can't claim ignorance as an excuse, I guess.)

There were a few things about the SpeakEasy version that were as strong, or even stronger, than the corresponding elements in that tour: Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah were as good as their Broadway counterparts, and Robert Saoud was likewise a hoot.  Other folks had their moments,  and the costumes, by Seth Bodie, were loud but divine.

But the problems began with the rest of the production's design, and ran right through its central performance.  Needless to say, SpeakEasy is working under tight physical constraints in the Roberts Studio Theatre, but still, Jenna McFarland Lord's set pretty much failed completely to conjure an essential component of The Drowsy Chaperone: its eponymous ersatz-20's musical should slowly invade the fallen world of its enchanted listener (the archetypal "Man in Chair").  We should never lose sight of the poignant, disappointed reality that frames the frothy shenanigans of his favorite (mythical) show.

Thus on Broadway, and in the ensuing tour, a detailed version of the lonely leading man's dingy apartment remained onstage throughout; rain poured down outside its windows as he listened to his scratchy old album, and the ghosts of a bygone era began to pop out of his closet and refrigerator, slowly warming the literally blue light of his life  - indeed, the conceit built to a climax in which a bi-plane landed in his living room. But at SpeakEasy, the Man in Chair's apartment pretty much vanished after the first moments, to be replaced by the supposed set of Chaperone (which was done up none too subtly);  we were plunked from one "reality" into another at once, and lost all sense of the pervasive atmosphere of evanescence that's central to the show.

Okay, SpeakEasy lacks the physical resources of Broadway, or even of a national tour; you simply can't land a plane in the Roberts Studio Theatre.  All the more reason, then, to imbue the performances with the right notes of imagination and wistfulness.  But the usually-reliable Will McGarrahan took precisely the opposite tack in his performance as Man in Chair - snarky and a bit bitter, he nailed all his laughs expertly, but lacked any trace of the sweetness that can make the role so memorable.  You didn't really care about this guy, or about the fact that he was lonely - if he was lonely, that is; tellingly, a key moment in the show played sourly at SpeakEasy that in the tour was heart-breaking.  When a fuse blows in Man in Chair's apartment, the building super lumbers through the musical-in-progress - which stands frozen in the dark - to change it.  I can still remember the enchantment of this encounter from the tour, and the strange resonance of its contrast between darkened fantasy and our quotidian, every-day world.  Once the lights are back on, the big lug mentions that he, too, loves musicals - and a moment of human connection suddenly flickers before us.  But it turns out he's into Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Lion King; and in the national tour, you almost sighed as the gossamer thread of a possible human attachment was severed for Man in Chair. But at SpeakEasy, it was just another knowing laugh line.

I don't even want to go into the issue of the dancing - needless to say, a central trope of Chaperone is the hilariously wide range of tap; the choreography should affectionately parody every zany trick of its period, with an emphasis on virtuosity, the more vapid the better.  But this cast didn't include even a single polished hoofer, and the ensuing gap was a sore one; one novelty number (on roller skates, no less) remained a klutzy mystery because its dancers couldn't really roller skate (so why would such a number be in a 20's-era show?).

The net effect of all this created a weird inversion in the show's seeming theme: we kept hearing, loud and clear, Man in Chair's witty asides about the political incorrectness, and sometimes tawdry reality, of his favorite musical genre, without ever getting much of the infectious joy of the thing itself; even the performers seemed to be constantly winking at us rather than living entirely within their own musical reality (a fatal mistake in this case).  Thus while the original Chaperone danced gloriously between worship and worldliness, this one by comparison was conceptually flat: just the usual arch deconstruction of a naive cultural form with no contradictory chaser; in effect SpeakEasy was patting you on the back for knowing better than Gershwin and Kern.

Still, I wonder - would I have figured that out all by myself?  (And would I appreciate Chekhov without the great productions I've seen?  Would I get Shakespeare?)

And does it really matter if Bostonians go home from the SpeakEasy Drowsy Chaperone thinking they've seen a great production when they haven't?  After all, it still is pretty good - and that's good enough for Boston, isn't it?  Why not pretend it's great - where's the harm?

I have to admit the only answers I have to these questions are romantic ones that would only matter to other people who have seen great theatre, and understood it; a dwindling minority even of the people who still read reviews.  So - if the blind are leading the blind here in Boston, is that so bad?  Maybe not; I have to admit, people always seem so happy with their self-aware, but gimcrack, versions of the culture; you hate to break the news to them that Vanya on 42nd Street wasn't really much good.  I keep feeling that perhaps critical ignorance is critical bliss - after all, it's even re-inforced by most of the intellectual attitudes around here.  It would be hard to swoon for Bob Brustein's dog-and-pony "theatre of revolt," for instance, if you'd really been exposed to a lot of great traditional theatre.  Indeed, the "elevated" discourse of our chattering class often depends on the fact that the chattering class just doesn't get out that much.  I mean, how could you face Diane Paulus and the A.R.T., and write the review that Kati Mitchell expects, with real knowledge of how great the theatre once was?  It would slowly kill you inside.  So it seems the choice for any reviewer of real ability who wants a foothold in the local profession is either self-inforced ignorance or intense cognitive dissonance. Sigh.  I think I have to find some sort of amnesia potion. Or maybe just read more Carolyn Clay.


  1. Sorry Thomas, you have a duty to pop the bubbles it is not acceptable to permit your readers to presume that the performance they have seen is necessarily the performance they should expect. If the base material is capable of delivering more, we should know about it. Without that, we stagnate.

  2. This essay is full of more truth than anything else I've read in months. Boston may feel like a lost cause most of the time, but it doesn't deserve dumbed-down arts nor criticism, even if that's what it gets most of the time. Keep fighting the good fight! We may be few in numbers, but we're listening.

  3. Thomas,

    So much of what you said is accurate to a fault, not only about this production, but about theatre productions by Boston area theatre companies in general, as well as those who review them.

    Certainly is not easy to miss the connundrum that the Boston theatre community, it's critics and subscribers face: Regional companies need shiny, happy reviews to get the butts in the seats and build subscriber bases. In order to do that, people need to be assured by the fourth estate that the production they are to be attending at $50+ a ticket will be worth opening their already tight pursestrings. (Yanquis.) The company in turn, with budgets tighter than, well, insert favorite metaphor here, do their best to squeeze every nickel and dime they can to produce anything remotely worthwhile and produce it on the stage, even if it is to the disadvantage of their already overworked and underpaid theatre crews and production teams. Especially for the latter, when the magical, initial concepts and million dollar ideas are mandatorily and almost brutally watered down to a whisp of the original imaginative effort, and what remains is only a semblance of any of the subtlety or detail that could have existed if these companies were able to operate on larger, more advantageous budgets. The same applies to the ability to cast and choreograph professionals or young emerging talents- it is a question of resource.

    With fewer and fewer exceptions to the above sentiment occuring in town, as there is always something outstanding happening for two dollars let alone two million somewhere (and not that money assures a brilliant experience, ahem, spidey,) how does this change? If Boston theatre (with a lower case 't') continues to be ruled by the burden of economy and design on a dime and the
    frantic, never ending need to fill the house in order to pay the electricity bill, how
    could the local critics, who obviously aren't all sawdust and hot air, for the most
    part, even begin to analyze or access the type of top quality, temporal theatrical
    moments of which you speak?

  4. My sincere thanks to all who commented! I appreciate your thoughts, even the challenging ones rather bravely posted by Seth Bodie (the talented costumer of "Drowsy Chaperone," to those of you who didn't pick that up).

    Seth makes a point that I'm sympathetic toward: the relentless financial pressures on local theatres are often to blame for their broader, brighter, flatter artistic choices. Many critics are actually happy with these decisions, however, for in many cases - though not all - the artists in this town are smarter and more informed than the people sitting in judgment on them! (That was the basic point of my post - that the criticism we read is more and more often clouded by professional ignorance.) Even the better reviewers, however, sometimes feel they should play along with what they think has a chance of selling, because to do otherwise could endanger the economic survival of theatre itself. (Just btw, very few local critics "hate theatre," anymore - Bill Marx is probably the last of that unhappy breed, and even he mostly keeps quiet these days, thank God!)

    What's the way out of this impasse? I wish I knew - but then I think my original post honestly communicated that it's a quandary. Meanwhile it's worth noting that SpeakEasy's "Drowsy Chaperone" is an interesting case study in this kind of artistic and financial conflict, in that many of the artistic choices I deplored in it (i.e., the more broadly comic/ironic readings of many characters) did mesh well with its cost-effective design choices; it was all of a piece. And if you can't afford the expense of an accurate physical evocation of a work (which in the case of "Chaperone" would have included a much moodier recreation of "Man in Chair"'s apartment), perhaps you're better off painting everything in it with a broad, if inaccurate, brush.

    Then again, with its million-dollar-a-year budget, SpeakEasy isn't exactly teetering on the brink of ruin, is it; if critics can't be honest about our leading mid-size theatre, one wonders what they CAN be honest about. And in the end, I think a critic has to describe a production accurately, based on his or her experience and ability, if he or she wants to maintain some level of distance between criticism and advertising. It's a tough choice, but that's the way it is. (Of course the easy out of that problematic equation, for editors at both commercial and university papers eager to keep up appearance and ad revenues, is to simply hire more ignorant reviewers.)

    I also want to say that the connection between financial resources and artistic quality is hardly a direct one. I give out many Hubbies every year to shows that play in far less luxe digs than the Roberts Studio Theatre, and that have been built on far smaller budgets than the average SpeakEasy one. It's a critic's duty to remember that productions still regularly transcend their financial limits. I only wish "Drowsy Chaperone" had.

  5. A word in defense of V on 42. It was my introduction to Chekhov (aside from a reading of Seagull), I loved it, still do, and most Chekhov productions I've seen (or been in) since were comparatively valueless except as a tonic for insomnia. Rare exceptions: Seagull with Carey Mulligan and Austin Pendleton's Vanya with Denis O'Hare, Mags Gyllenhall and Peter Sarsgard.

  6. Well, everyone to his or her own taste, I suppose! Although I do think you must have had bad luck with Chekhov if you really rate V on 42 that highly!

  7. And just btw, if you get a chance to see the Russian film of Uncle Vanya (Dyadya Vanya, 1971) it might open your eyes to the deficiencies of V on 42. The Michael Cacoyannis Cherry Orchard, with Charlotte Rampling (1999), which is generally more available, is likewise quite moving, and very much worth seeing.

  8. I've never seen a good production of The Cherry Orchard (be thankful you didn't see the production I was in 2 yrs ago in DC)... I'm not convinced it's his best work. I theorize that if he lived, he'd've overhauled it the way he re-wrote The Wood Demon into Uncle Vanya and turned it into the masterpiece everyone seems to really really want it to be. Meanwhile, I'll look up the Cacoyannis version.