Should a Critic Stop Reviewing A Playwright He Doesn’t “Get” or Ever Respond Favorably To?

On today’s New York Times Theater Blog, critic Charles Isherwood makes an honest admission and asks an interesting question:  Should a critic stop reviewing the work of a playwright he obviously doesn’t “get” or ever respond favorably to? What do you think?

For One Critic, It’s a Rapp

by Charles Isherwood, New York Times, Oct 7, 2011

Adam Rapp won’t have me to kick around anymore.

Oops. I think I got that backwards. I mean I won’t have Adam Rapp to kick around anymore.

A scene from Adam Rapp’s play “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling.”

Fear not, admirers of this almost absurdly prolific playwright. I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Rapp is heading off to Hollywood for good, hanging up his hat as a theater man. (In addition to writing and directing for the theater, Mr. Rapp publishes young-adult novels, has written for the HBO series “In Treatment” and has written and directed two films, “Winter Passing” and “Blackbird.”) Given his superhuman output, he’ll probably have a new play in production by next month.

What I mean is I think it’s high time I stopped reviewing his plays. I suspect Mr. Rapp would heartily endorse this idea.

After all, reading my view that his latest, “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling,” was “an empty farrago” probably didn’t make Mr. Rapp’s day. But I bet that he didn’t rush to the New York Times Web site during the opening-night party, or indeed read my review at all. By this point Mr. Rapp surely knows where I stand on his work, which is to say (perhaps from his point of view) jumping up and down on it.

Oh, not really. My assessments of Mr. Rapp’s plays have been honest and, I hope, clear-headed and persuasively argued, if rarely enthusiastic. I have been writing about Mr. Rapp’s grim, often violent dramas and tar-shellacked comedies for more than a decade, beginning with his 2001 play “Nocturne” at New York Theater Workshop, about which I had many positive things to say in the pages of Variety, where I then worked. I also wrote a mostly favorable notice of his 2006 play “Red Light Winter,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and had some good words for “The Metal Children” from last year.

But for the most part my reviews of his work have come with serious reservations. Even in my fairly upbeat assessment of “Red Light Winter” I noted that the play, which I still consider the best of his I’ve seen, “comes trimmed in a disappointing array of contrivance and cliché.”

And about a lot of Mr. Rapp’s writing I have nothing but reservations. “Kindness,” from 2008, I called “arid and devoid of emotional authenticity.” The opening line from my notice for “Essential Self-Defense,” from the year before: “If you are not interested in human behavior, why write plays?” Ouch. But that comment does reflect a consistent strain in my responses to his writing.

Contrary to popular myth, drama critics don’t salivate at the chance to savage a playwright’s work. It’s still less appealing to continue doing so, year in and year out. Who wants to be cast as the playground bully who won’t leave the poor kid alone? I have passed on reviewing a couple of Mr. Rapp’s plays during my tenure at The Times. Caryn James called “American Sligo” “keenly observed and wonderfully acted and directed (by the playwright).” His new play, like many of his works, provoked wildly diverse responses from critics, ranging from unqualified enthusiasm to unbridled dismay (mine).

But aside from that hope-springing-eternal thing, I have felt I should keep reviewing Mr. Rapp’s work because he is produced at some of New York’s most prestigious nonprofit Off Broadway companies and often attracts significant acting talent. His work has been presented at Playwrights Horizons, one of the most important incubators of new work. Billy Crudup starred in “Metal Children” at the Vineyard Theater last year. “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” has been produced by the Atlantic Theater Company, under the direction of its leader, Neil Pepe. The terrific cast includes Christine Lahti and Reed Birney.

For similar reasons, however, one could argue – and one is! — that perhaps it’s time to allow Mr. Rapp’s writing to be assessed by a critic who responds more naturally or sympathetically to his aesthetic. Criticism is, after all, a subjective form of writing. There is no right answer. And since the artistic staff at some of the city’s major theaters – and a deep roster of acting talent – obviously appreciates something in Mr. Rapp’s writing that I continually do not, perhaps it would be in everyone’s best interests to let another writer weigh in on Mr. Rapp’s future work. The Times is fortunate enough to have a pretty deep roster of critics.

Obviously a critic would not want to recuse him or herself from writing about any and all artists whose work he or she doesn’t care for. It would hardly be feasible, to begin with. And most writers write some good plays and some less good ones. Heaven knows even America’s most celebrated playwrights – Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee – have written some plays I never particularly want to see again.

But Mr. Rapp’s stupendously fertile output – and the by-now obvious discordance between our ideas of what constitutes a compelling work of theater – make him a singular case. After all, “Dreams of Flying” is the fifth play by Mr. Rapp I’ve reviewed this year alone, if you include “The Hallway Trilogy” as three. Aside from a few patches in one of those plays, I wasn’t impressed by any of them, and the prospect of five more next year – unlikely but not out of the question – frankly leaves me contemplating abandoning my vocation to open a yogurt shop in Long Island City. (No offense meant: I’ve become quite taken with the place recently. The Tournesol bistro is a delight.)

I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve rapped Mr. Rapp’s knuckles enough for a lifetime. I’d like to hand the ruler to someone else next time.

My editor hasn’t agreed yet. But what do you think?

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