Critics

The theater world and the food world are not dissimilar. Both have their roots in ancient traditions, their devotees are somewhat eclectic, and both contain numerous schools of thought and theory. For every Thomas Keller there’s a Wylie Dufresne; for every John Patrick Shanley there’s a David Lindsay-Abaire. Behind the scenes of a Broadway show or a 4-star restaurant is a similar scramble of workers, producers (owners) and artists (chefs, playwrights) eager to please, cajole, challenge, inform, devastate, enlighten and feed a hard-to-please public.

Enter the critic.

This semester at NYU’s Tisch School of Dramatic Writing, which ends a week from tomorrow (when I leave for Paris) could be subtitled: “Adam Learns The Downside of Criticism When Two of His Favorite Teachers Get Torn Up in the Times.” (The main title, of course, would be “Sex and Cabbage: An Unhappy Marriage.”) We will now explore the complicated relationship between the artist and the critic in the theater world and apply it to the food world.

Lena Smurf and Rosco Pumice (names have been changed in case I’m sharing more than I should) co-teach a class at a very important New York theater institution. This class is called Collaboration and it began in September with five playwrights (me included), five directors, and 20 unbelievably talented NYU grad actors. Thus far we’ve worked on 10-minute plays (I wrote about a repressed Republican college lesbian), a piece of devised theater (our theme was “balls.” Don’t ask.) and the first 10 minutes of a full-length play, which we ran this morning to great success. I really love the class and I really love the spirit in which its taught: everyone here loves theater and we’re here to appreciate not to tear down. It’s the equivalent of taking a cooking class at someone’s house where everyone shares a favorite recipe and even if someone’s didn’t come out that great you can laugh it off and appreciate the effort.

While all this cheerfulness was washing over us Monday mornings at 9 am, another thing was going on. Lena and Rosco were working on a large production of Lena’s play that was to be Rosco’s first as head of this important New York theater institution. When we first met in September, they were holding auditions and doing initial read-throughs. By the time November came around, they were deep into rehearsals, fretting over their choices, their revisions, and–most of all–the terrible threat of a bad review in The New York Times.

Lena is the most adorable teacher. She reminds me of the babysitter you always wanted. She’s upbeat, optimistic, loving and hopeful. Her play is a really interesting, unexpected exploration of a theme with great broad strokes and interesting tiny detail that adds up to something quite unique. We were invited to the first dress rehearsal and I left thinking, “Wow: what a cool piece of theater.”

But Lena and Rosco were sweating. Lena had made the determination that she wasn’t going to read the Times review. When it came out, Rosco would read it first, sit her down and talk her through it.

“If it’s read to me, I’m less likely to visualize the really nasty pieces of text over and over again,” she said.

Rosco then recited a nasty review of something he directed in college, which he’s never forgotten: “Smug, obnoxious, overreaching and desperate…” [Or something along those lines. It was funny how he quoted it verbatim.]

On Thursday night of that week, when the show was to open, I loaded up The New York Times site and refreshed every couple of minutes after midnight, waiting for the review. When it came on, I felt like a parent about to read their hard-working child’s report card. “Please, let her not fail…please let her not fail….”

But fail she did. Pretty badly. As did Rosco. The review was not kind.

“[Lena’s] writing could sorely use some nuanced acting to soften its blunter edges, and it doesn’t get much massaging from [Rosco] and his cast,” it said.

I sighed and grew slightly miffed. I’d seen this play, and sure there were problems, but why isn’t this review at least acknowledging the heart and soul and love that went into it? Shouldn’t this critic meet Lena and Rosco, find out what their intentions were, and then see if they feel like those intentions were fulfilled? Why is this critic so hard to please, so assured of himself, so myopic in his critical vision?

At our next class, Rosco and Lena bravely addressed their experience of being reviewed. Rosco was at the opening night party when someone from publicity whispered the bad news into his ear.

“Thank God I’d been drinking,” he quipped.

After sharing their disappointment for a bit, someone asked what Rosco thought the role of the critic in theater should be.

“There are three types of critics,” he explained. [And this is the speech that inspired this post: I feel like this applies equally well to the food world.]

“The first deals in commerce, basically telling you whether or not you should buy the ticket. Is it worth $40 to see this play? That’s one type of critic,” he began.

“The second is the most loathsome. This is the critic who writes sensationally to sell newspapers. John Simon is the perfect example of this,” said Rosco. “He’s the type of critic who calls an actress fat even though it has nothing to do with the play. I think it’s disgusting.”

“But it’s the third type of critic that can be most beneficial to the theater community. It’s this critic who gets involved, who knows the playwrights, knows the directors, is deeply immeshed in everything and can therefore comment upon it usefully and thoughtfully and really contribute to the form and its evolution.”

I told that last part to my friend Dan the other day and he immediately mentioned Terry Teachout (who has a blog). “He’s been to a few of my friends’ plays,” he said. “He really reaches out and sees newer work and talks to the playwrights about what they’re doing.”

Is there an equivalent of this in the food world? Amanda Hesser took huge flack for pushing her friend Jean-George’s cuisine, but maybe she had the right idea? Who else makes that effort? Robert Sietsema? He eats mostly ethnic food but his scope is large and he constantly has his finger on the pulse of what’s changing, what’s new and what’s going away.

Actually, when I think about it, the answer may be staring me in the face. If there’s one great equalizer, one great community builder that de-centralizes the power of the critic it’s the internet. Specifically: eGullet and Chowhound. Here, the job of the critic is taken to the people and the results are extraordinary. Hundred post threads about the intricacies of the doughnuts at Doughnut Plant are placed aside passionate pleas for the perfect chili recipe. Food luminaries like Anthony Bourdain and Paula Wolfer linger in the shadows and icons like Ruch Reichl make themselves available for questions.

This is a dream that is, in fact, envisioned by Arthur Miller in his autobiography “Timebends.” Bemoaning the power of The New York Times, he writes: “For all intents and purposes the contemporary American repertoire comes out of New York and represents the taste of whoever is writing the New York Times review, only slightly mitigated by other reviews. The Times did not invent the situation, but there it is, a dictatorship as effective as any cultural control mechanism in the world. Indeed, when the Soviets close down a show, it is a committee that makes the decision, rather than one man–at least since Stalin died.”

Calling for reform, Miller attends a meeting held by Clifton Daniel, the Times managing editor, who seeks input on destabilizing its monopoly. Miller writes: “After some wayward discussion, I suggested that since the nub of the issue was the danger of injustice in a single critic carrying all the immense prestige of the Times, perhaps the solution was to send two or three critics to write independent notices, maybe even on occasion asking an informed theatergoer to write his impressions of a show in a paragraph or two.”

Sound familiar?

That’s eGullet, that’s Chowhound. So Miller’s vision (which Daniel rejected–“But who would be speaking for The New York Times?” he responded) arrives via the internet. I’m a part of it, you’re a part of it and the result is a much more textured approach to criticism. Miller writes: “…differing reviews would make very interesting reading and would broaden the public’s awareness of how fictional, rather than a matter of plain fact, all criticism really is, which is to say, how subjective. It was not, I said, that critics knew more than others but that they could write better about the little they did know….”

Meanwhile, Lena and Rosco are fully recovered. Lena’s working on a new play and Rosco’s planning a new season. And though they’ll carry their bruises with them for a long time (maybe, even, forever) they have something that no career critic ever will: the ability to go back out into the world and make something new. Their job is completely active: they are creators of text, much like chefs are creators of food. When you know how to fry an egg, you can always feed yourself. Which is more than you can say for the critic, whose job–by its nature–is merely reactionary. They wait at the table for someone to feed them while everyone else parties in the kitchen. Such is the life of the critic.

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