I know, I know. Criticizing Bill Marx is like shooting fish in a barrel. But sometimes I just can't resist.
Bill has always been under the delusion that he writes trenchant, incisive criticism. If only. I grant you he's pretty good at literary criticism, but less good at theatre criticism, and basically an ignoramus at everything else. I guess in his brain he imagines that his ongoing resuscitation of various crippled critiques of capitalist culture from the mid-twentieth century counts as "incisive." Again, if only.
And as for using "the point of his pen, not the feather" (a favorite quote of his from Swift) - well, somehow when the going gets rough, Mr. Marx always goes missing; he has managed to tiptoe almost entirely around the ongoing intellectual debacle at the A.R.T., for instance. He was also bamboozled by the devious guilty-white-chick dramaturg Ilana Brownstein (late of the Huntington, now at Company One), who lured him for a time into lame attempts to puff up the intellectual profile of Shawn Whats-his-Face of the same theatre (I still get a chuckle out of Shawn's attempt at a "Judicial Review" essay). And we won't even go into the Arts Fuse's anonymously-sourced paeans to the (now debunked) Matter Pollocks. Fortunately these days, we don't really hear that much from Bill at all (he recently wrote something incisive about Cirque du Soleil, I think.)
In short, Bill is all hat, and no cattle, as they say down in Texas. And he's sporting quite the chapeau today, as he once again intones that “Criticism should not read as if it had been written by a publicist.”
Uh-huh. Sure, fine. I couldn't agree more; I've often said much the same thing myself. But let's just see how closely the Arts Fuse, which Bill edits, follows this dictum.
Oh, who am I kidding. You don't have to look far to find P.R. in its purest form on the Arts Fuse. One recent review described SpeakEasy's Xanadu as "a totally rad entertainment experience . . . an effervescent jukebox musical spoof that brings smiles to every face and glow sticks to every hand."
Okay - now you publicists, stay away from that quote, you hear me? Because that's NOT publicity! No sir, no way, no how!
But wait, theres more non-PR where that came from: Little Shop of Horrors was "vibrantly entertaining . . . Shakespeare might have written this story with an eye to pleasing the groundlings . . . my twelve-year-old daughter has seen and loved the show."
Oddly, there are a few moments when the PR on the Arts Fuse does, indeed, feel like clueless non-PR, as when one critic said of Woody Sez: "expansively competent . . . [its] music appeals to the average person." (The 30's got a truly bizarre plug, too: "The thirties were famous for the Depression . . . and the Dust Bowl." Really?)
Wait - the Arts Fuse critics do take out the long knives on occasion, as when they cut up Cupcake, a teensy little gay revue at Club Cafe: "I missed the two ingredients that transform a work of convincing craft into a work of convincing art: surprise and surprise’s twin brother, leaps of the imagination," the Fuse suddenly fumed. "Is the cupcake-baker straight or is he gay? Does he have a legal permit to sell his cakes? These are the basic questions Cupcake raises. Now I grant it’s all done charmingly. But does celebrating “all that is summer and fun” excuse all that is omitted here? If you are the type of theatergoer who yearns for a more engaging, more honest take on Provincetown in summer and on the high drama of ANY relationship—straight or gay—this musical will leave you full but not filled."
Seriously. Xanadu - good. Cupcake - bad. Because it didn't "transform a work of convincing craft into a work of convincing art."
What is there to say? How can Marx keep imagining he's putting out Partisan Review, when more often than not he's thrashing around well below the level of the Globe? And as for PR - well, honestly, it seems PR calls the Arts Fuse home, until suddenly - usually when the artists in question have no connections - it doesn't. I'm not sure what Jonathan Swift would have to say about that.