Sunday, December 11, 2011

Should the gays be reviewing the blacks?, or: Is there too much swish to the Ish?

Charles Isherwood of the Times (at left) is back in the news, with a particularly clueless review of Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which has reached Broadway after taking several regional theatres by storm (in Boston, the show was so sold out that long lines of people waited patiently outside the Huntington every night in the hope that some ticket-holders would be no-shows).  To most observers (including yours truly), Stick Fly looked like the next August: Osage County; if not a commercial slam dunk, then a highly probable success.

Isherwood's pan has thrown a wrench into all those plans, of course (Stick Fly could overcome a negative Times review, but it's unlikely) - so it's no surprise the usual suspects have pointed out that he's white, and that Diamond is black.  So how could he understand her play?

The situation is a bit more complex than the blogosphere would like to admit, however, because what's most interesting about Diamond's drama is that it's about class first, and race second; in fact its (almost-) entirely African-American cast is monied and educated, so for the first time in American stage history (perhaps), Broadway audiences find themselves watching a 'well-made' play of upper bourgeois manners in which questions of race have been (to a large degree) transcended, while questions of class and privilege remain entrenched.

And you know, I hate to sound like a school-marm, but this is important; it makes Stick Fly a kind of milestone, whatever its various flaws - and yes, it does have some; it does tilt occasionally toward soap opera, I admit.  But seriously, only a fool could imagine it's not a good play - a solid entertainment that could appeal to a large, literate audience and leave them with big, tasty topics to chew on.  Sorry, but this is part of what Broadway is for (or should be for).

Still, "the Ish" is blind to the play's significance.  I'm not sure if it's because he's (very) white, however (of course I've been the object of that kind of accusation myself, so perhaps I'm too sensitive to it).

No, to me the issue with the Ish may be that he's just too gay.

Now I'm gay too, so let me explain.  Look carefully at the style of his takedown (and it's typical of many of his takedowns, btw).  He opens with one of his self-consciously "fabulous" wisecracks:

The daytime soaps are being bug-zapped from the networks one by one, disappearing into oblivion  after decades of reliably dishing out startling coincidences and staggering secrets.

Studded with gay cultural touchstones ("daytime soap," "dish"), the pan is already, from its opening line, a blend of several modes of post-modern pop - the Ish confidently mixes a certain mode of trashy taste (stereotypically beloved by women) with a dash of patronizing lit-crit savvy, as well as a shot of naughty gay "oh-you-know-you-love-it" knowingness.  This is a familiar formula, but the Ish dishes it better than just about anyone.

You may sense immediately, however, that these tropes may not map to the concerns of the African-American haute bourgeoisie.  But the Ish seems tone-deaf to this issue; he doesn't realize he's a stranger in a strange land.  Indeed, the cultural sophistication of Diamond's dialogue and the fact that she's consciously taking on a "white" mainstream tradition seem to short-circuit whatever larger social perspectives linger in his brain. Thus he totters on through his column inches with one quip after another, like a drag queen on a bender staggering around a stripper pole:

Where to go for a sustaining dose of torrid, troubled romances and the occasional heated catfight? he wonders, and then ( just in case none of the ladies who lunch has answered, I guess) he lets us know: Lydia R. Diamond supplies enough simmering conflict, steamy romance and gasp-worthy revelations to satisfy just about anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms from the merciless soap slaughter that’s taken place over the last couple of years.

Now seriously - "gasp-worthy revelations?"  "Steamy romance?" "Soap slaughter?" Oh, snap!!  Now I know his reviewing style has always operated in some strange cultural nexus between Babe Paley, Charles Busch, Harold Bloom, and that lady who buys romance paperbacks at the airport, but isn't this a bit much? Okay, Isherwood loves his trash (and his porn - his magnum opus, about porn bottom Joey Stefano, at left), yet he simultaneously seems to imagine that anything less astringent than Beckett is basically fodder for Days of Our Lives.  I'm sorry, but something about that just doesn't work.

And you have to wonder - does he never come up for air? Because the soap-addicted gay tropes just keep on coming:  "daddy issues" . . . "a Tyler Perry melodrama" . . . "sitcommy and slack" . . . Isherwood does eventually pick up on the issues of class that pervade this "melodrama" (I'd call it a "drama"), but even here he seems to imagine that Diamond is stumbling on these things unintentionally (perhaps because he is - the Ish never seems to realize that his ironic embrace of "trash" is really just another form of class-bound snobbery).

Now the New York production may be far weaker than the well-acted version I saw in Boston last year; it's possible, but I kind of doubt it.  I think it's far more likely that the Ish simply latched on to the admittedly sudsy tone of one or two of Diamond's sub-plots, and then worked backwards from them in his usual gay-cookie-cutter-style to a condescending dismissal. The upshot, however, is that he seems to be ridiculing the African-American upper class as well as Diamond; to him, a straightforward drama about its success and complicated mores is little more than a soap opera.

And to be blunt, I don't think a straight white man would make the same mistake (they're too cautious these days!). And it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that gay tunnel vision is what makes Adam Rapp a mystery to the Ish as well; the gays don't much "get" damaged straight boys either. (In fact there are a lot of things the gays don't get; no, that doesn't make me "self-hating," it just means I appreciate the strengths and the limits of my own tribe.)

So whats the solution? No, not a witch hunt against other white, or other gay, reviewers. But it's time for the Times to hire a second second-stringer. Past time, probably. And it's time for Charles Isherwood to turn off the porn, get off the couch, and start to learn a little more about the big, wide, changing world around him, and the Broadway play's place within that world.