Monday, November 14, 2011

Michael Kaiser's Grandfather is Scared of the Internet

Today in the Huffington post we find another lost column by Michael Kaiser's grandfather. It is nice of Mr. Kaiser to type these up for us, as they were probably handwritten before word processors.

Kidding aside, this time the screed is about the scariness of online critics. I'm not kidding, he uses that word.

In theater circles alone one can visit,,, and numerous other sites. Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

This is a scary trend.

While I have had my differences with one critic or another, I have great respect for the field as a whole. Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers.

Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment.

The problem here, and one that I've talked about for almost ten years on this blog, is that Kaiser conflates EVERYTHING out there into one big scary Internet monster. And then, unsurprisingly, can't even fully articulate what makes it so scary.

Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prize winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is making the regional rounds. Its New York run garnered it a solid A- on Stagegrade, and most regional critics have pretty much confirmed that grade. The play also looks to be going to Broadway.

But if you are interested in two interesting regional dissents you can find them only online.

Don Hall, The Angry White Guy in Chicago, saw the Steppenwolf production:

The result is that none of the second act characters have anything to say. They're all very two dimensional and the tension is non-existent. If Act One was Norman Lear, Act Two was like ZOOM meets a bad SNL sketch. Each character is assigned a position and then shrilly pontificates it throughout. There are virtually no class distinctions (everyone in Act Two is affluent upper middle class) and the issue of race is forced. Further, one of the games in this act is a volley of competing racial jokes (might've worked if any of them had been genuinely funny because then the indictment travels to those in the audience laughing at them - but they weren't funny, just blunt).

With the first act so smart and pointed, the second act deficiencies make the play feel a bit like a squandered opportunity. Sure, the message that "The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same" is fine but we know that already.

And Boston's own Tom Garvey at The Hub Review recommends the Trinity Rep production, but also finds problems with the disparate halves of the play:

What bothers me about the exercise here is that it's simply beside the point; there's interesting cultural work to be done, based on Norris's premise, but the playwright refuses to do it. That the white family knows a nasty joke about black people, and the black family knows one about white people, doesn't really tell us all that much about life in the millennium.


Clearly there's a lot there to unpack, but Norris can't be bothered - and why? Well, I imagine because it might make his play truly controversial. And he doesn't want that - we're all supposed to agree in the theatre, remember? The playwright is expected to pour his scorn onto somebody else, somebody who isn't actually in the audience. So Norris diverts his action into shared laughter over outrageous dirty jokes. He parodies "hysteria" a second time, but refuses to dig beneath it, into its actual causes.

Just don't tell Michael Kaiser's grandfather. It's scary out there.


Thomas Garvey said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Art, and for the rest of the post, too. I'm struck again and again by the naive faith newspaper readers have in the judgment of editors, and the "vetting" they supposedly apply to their critics. But to be blunt, many print critics - and maybe most - are no more qualified than some guy (like me!) blogging in his pajamas. And to be REALLY, cruelly honest, you'd be surprised how many critical posts have been handed out for political, or even sexual, favors. (Or maybe you wouldn't be so surprised!) In a word, the print "standard" is no standard, really.

Because the proof of a reviewer's ability is really in the pudding, isn't it? Which leads me to the next, deeper secret about print critics (especially theatre ones) - they are generally chosen to flatter the tastes of the paper's audience, or to "position" the paper against a market segment, or what have you. Their true critical ability always takes a back seat to this quality. ALWAYS. Remember, in the bitter end, a newspaper is merely a vehicle for its advertising. And the critic is merely a "feature" of that vehicle. Thus even among highly "qualified" critics, a paper generally chooses one who can preternaturally play up to, rather than challenge, his audience. This is certainly the case at the Globe, and really at the Times, too.

Esther said...

I really enjoyed Clybourne Park at Trinity Rep. To me, the similarities and differences between the characters 50 years apart were so interesting. The blacks are empowered, the women have careers, the straight white male is still pretty much a jerk. ;-( And I also thought it was interesting how people tiptoe around the subject of race until they start saying horrible things about each other.