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Commentary: When Drama Critics Go Low

April 3, 2024 | By Bruce R. Feldman


I was talking with my wife the other day at breakfast about a concert review I hesitated to write because, while the show was agreeable, it fell short in many ways, and I did not want to appear too negative or discourage the sincere efforts of a company of artists who clearly strived for the best.



The group mostly gave solid renditions of the compositions they presented. Not bad, but not outstanding either. There was a theme intended to tie all the selections together, to give meaning to them collectively, but it wasn’t always clear what the connections were, other than they all were released in the same year. The musicianship was a little flavorless, as well.

 

The more I thought about the concert, the more I wanted to pick it apart. At the same time, it didn’t feel right to throw icy water on everything. What purpose would be served?

 

This is the uncomfortable quandary reviewers often find themselves in when a play or performance is well intentioned, but the result is just mid, as today’s kids like to call something that’s nothing special.

 

It’s easy to heap praise on a terrific show or on a star who knocks it out of the park. “Sensational!” ”Hilarious!” “Don’t miss it!” The acclamations flow from the keyboard effortlessly, like an automatic tennis ball machine gone rogue.

 

It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden. 

Mark Twain


It’s equally easy to take pot shots at a terrible production. When Dorothy Parker wrote her famous line, “Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B,” she wasn’t offering constructive criticism, she wanted only to be funny – and nasty – as did John Mason Brown when he pronounced that, as Cleopatra, Tallulah Bankhead ''barged down the Nile and sank.''

 

Some critics – I’m one of them – were merciless in their ridicule of the revival of Oklahoma that played here last year. The creators of that production made a deliberate decision to turn it into something it isn’t and never will be. Theirs was a sour and brazen deconstruction of a sentimental story, beloved for generations precisely because it is corny, conventional, and comfortable.

 


When audacity like that rears its avant-garde head, those doing the dirty work had better be prepared to take a few hits. In a situation like this, a critic will feel justified in going for the jugular. In fact, the critic may not be able to resist.

 

Yes, showing restraint, offering thoughtful, measured criticism may be the high road that critics should take, but going low is a lot more fun. We all have our failings, which is to say that, contrary to popular belief, even drama reviewers are people, too.

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