Friday, October 7, 2011

The rap on Rapp; or, file under "Unintended Critical Consequences"

"The Ish"
NYT theatre critic Charles Isherwood (left) admitted today that he just doesn't get Adam Rapp. And after many a pan, he'd like to cut the playwright a little slack; maybe somebody else could review him from now on?

The admission appears harmless enough on the surface, doesn't it - Isherwood only seems to intend it as a kind of back-handed means of wriggling out of an unpopular position; plus it's obviously mere filler for the NYT's "Talkback" theatre "blog."

But amusingly, it has stirred up much controversy in many echelons of the blogosphere, where Isherwood is none too popular. Indeed, many a fledgling playwright has been known to curse the name of Isherwood, citing his many prejudices against various new playwrights, and cry to heaven that anyone, anyone would be a better critic of his own work than "The Ish"!

But now, oddly enough, it seems bloggers and twitters are united in the opposite argument: since Isherwood has admitted there must be something to Rapp that he just can't comprehend, he should and must continue to review him! To hand off the critical duties to someone more sympathetic to the dramatist, in fact, would amount to a dereliction of duty. In short, Isherwood's reign of error - and all agree it is a reign of the snarkiest, most ignorant malice imaginable (just check the comments on his original post) - MUST continue!

Okay . . . once more the blogosphere reveals itself as a kind of Second Life of inexperienced, idealist "critical thinking," in which the real-life parameters of the press are a vast terra incognita, and contentions are argued relentlessly to ultimately contradictory ends.

Because Charles Isherwood does not assign himself plays or playwrights to cover.  They are assigned to him, so breathless arguments about "slippery slopes" are simply irrelevant - we're already well down that greasy incline, boys and girls.  In fact,  it may well be that "the Ish" has been stuck with Rapp for so long because Brantley, the lead critic, feels the same way he does about the playwright, and has been able to wriggle out of covering him behind closed doors!

Playwright Adam Rapp
Trust me, lead critics are always begging off shows they don't want to review, and thus the second stringer is stuck with them.  How do bloggers think the editorial process works, I wonder?  And really, is there some sort of moral law that requires Isherwood to gauge every new playwright in production in New York on some sort of all-encompassing sliding scale?  (If there is, then the Times has already violated that regulation left and right.)  To me, the rather obvious subtext of Isherwood's column is something like "Ben doesn't have to write about Adam Rapp, so how come I have to???"  It's a plea for a third-stringer to pick up his cast-offs - an odd confession in a professional publication, I agree, but still - hardly an unusual occurrence behind the scenes.

What's more (ironically enough), it seems the consensus in the blogosphere is that Rapp's success is, indeed, mysterious - so perhaps one reason for the outcry might be the feeling that without Isherwood's perceptive, if snarky, analysis, Rapp might take over even more new-play territory than he has already!  At least that's the only logical explanation I can think of for all the rhetorical unrest.

But there's only so much a critic can really do when it comes to advocacy - or opposition - once a certain amount of financial clout, celebrity interest, or institutional mass has gathered behind a playwright.  The critical moment in criticism, as it were, occurs early in a writer's career; a reviewer like Isherwood can launch a playwright, but once his or her career has gotten off the ground, it's difficult for a reviewer to stop its trajectory.  Only a collapse at the box office can really do that - but Rapp is largely a known quantity, and sheltered from such a judgment by the non-profit status of the theatres who produce him, with their clubby artistic culture. subscription series, and donation-driven business models.

So Isherwood can perceive he's just flailing at a train that has already sailed, and he'd like to move on.  His mistake was saying so in public.  If he'd kept his complaints within the press room, eventually he would have been released from his servitude, and no one would have been the wiser; indeed, the blogosphere would have been so grateful for the change!  But now its negative reaction may actually force Isherwood to continue . . . Which only calls to my mind the chorus of a certain Alanis Morissette hit from the 90's . . .

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