Critical Case Study #1: A Brutal Lack of Investment

Enough with the niceties. Time for some fightin’ words.

Two days ago, Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed a production of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Water By The Spoonful. Ms.  Zinman is somewhat renowned in the Philadelphia community for her less-than-gracious approach to theatre, but this particular review, dear reader, so perfectly epitomizes everything that’s wrong with American theatre criticism that I simply have to punch it in the face.

First of all, Ms. Zinman seems to have come into this play willfully knowing nothing about it. There is something to be said for viewing a play with fresh eyes: if you know everything about it, can you be objective about it? Can you experience the play as a novice audience member, as many audience members will be? And that’s all well and good. But to be a thoughtful theatre critic, it’s integral that you know something about the play. Maybe not the plot, or all of the characters, but maybe a little something about its history–say, in the case of Water By The Spoonful, that the play is the second installment in Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. Or that the play is set in Philadelphia because Hudes grew up in Philadelphia. Or that the play itself is semi-biographical, its characters modeled after people in Hudes’ own family. Theatres tend to provide little snippets of information like that to even its most novice audience members, through program notes or marketing blurbs or weekly teasers on Facebook. And with a play as prominent as Water By The Spoonful, it’s hard to believe that an audience member might come in with literally no knowledge of what was to come, even if that knowledge comes from reading the program seconds before the curtain rises.

And yet beliefs are made to be cruelly and unapologetically disproved. For instead, Madam Zinman, throwing caution and surely numerous opportunities for casual education to the wind, came to the play expecting it to be about… wait for it… the global water crisis. Because of the title. In and of itself this isn’t such a bad thing–but what makes it a cardinal sin is that Madam Zinman, rather than accepting the play for what it is (a play about community and recovery and loss and pain and family and stuff), decided her version was better.

“Consider the recent chemical tainting of residential water in West Virginia,” she pouts, apparently unaware that Hudes, writing Water By The Spoonful three years ago, could not possibly have been able to calibrate her play’s relevance to an event that happened three weeks ago. “Consider the drought and raging wild fires in California. Consider that more than 1.2 billion people on earth now live without a reliable source of fresh water.  Then consider that this play is about a bunch of crack addicts who do awful things and are, with the exception of Hudes’ recurring character Elliot, utterly boring and unsympathetic characters.”

Set aside for a moment that, apparently, in Miz Zinman’s mind some problems and people are more worthy of being shown onstage than others, and that if Miz Zinman had done even a casual Google search she would have been able to avoid this absolutely insane conjecture. Consider instead that Miz Zinman is essentially rejecting Water By The Spoonful not because of its problems as a text, or because of faults in the production, but because it isn’t about what she decided it should be about. In doing this, she falls into the trap many critics fall into: dismissing something because it isn’t what they thought or decided it would be.

When critics do this, it is unbelievably unfair to the play and to the production. It is a critic’s responsibility to approach a play and a production as if it were a small planet. As a critic, you have to approach every play thinking everything is intentional, set aside your preconceptions, and allow yourself to fully experience the play as translated by the production. Then you can ask what strikes you, what confuses you, what sticks, what slips away. You cannot–you can not–demand that the playwright rewrite an entire play because you have a bee in your bonnet and you feel misled by the title.

That could have ended the discussion. I could have been content to contain my fury at that offense. But Miz Zinman takes her complete and utter disdain for her profession a step further by blatantly refusing to pay attention to the play she’s reviewing. One by one, Dame Zinman rattles off a laundry list of the characters (as if that’s supposed to reveal anything about the play), boiling them down to a few words:  Chutes&Ladders plays it safe, Fountainhead’s a rich addict, “Yazmin (Amia Desanti) is the sanctimonious rich white girl who is, in ways I couldn’t follow, Elliot’s cousin/romantic interest/best friend.”

Stop right there and shut your mouth, Zinman. Yazmin is not white, nor is she rich, nor is she Elliot’s romantic interest. She is–as is expcitly stated in the play, both in casual conversation and in monologues that are crucial to the character’s development–Elliot’s Puerto Rican cousin who grew up poor and married rich and struggles with that rift in her identity. If Zinman had bothered to engage with the play she was supposed to be reviewing, she would have been able to “follow” Yazmin’s nuanced, tender relationship with Elliot–and maybe would have been able to follow the play, global water crisis or no.

Zinman can’t even be bothered to get the actor’s name right. The actor who plays Yazmin is not “Amia Desanti,” a woman who does not exist even according to the Internet; it’s Maia Desanti, seen all around Philly from InterAct Theatre Company’s MicroCrisis to Angels in America at the Wilma. I can hear you now, dear reader: “It’s just a typo, Critic Crusader! It doesn’t mean anything!” But that typo means that not only was Zinman careless enough to let her article go to press without doing even a simple Google search to check her facts, but the Inquirer was careless enough to let it go to print. That speaks volumes for the lack of interest the Inquirer has in this subject, and the lack of care Zinman takes in her reviews.

Zinman is allowed to dislike this production. She is allowed to dislike this play. She is allowed to think whatever she wants–but she has a responsibility to talk about the play thoughtfully. What she does instead is talk about it brusquely, reductively, and disrespectfully. Essentially, what M’damn Zinman’s review boils down to is a brutal lack of investment. She can’t be bothered to meet the play halfway; she can’t be bothered to think about what the play itself might have been trying to do; she can’t be bothered to consider the piece she saw as the product of a play and a specific production; she can’t be bothered to consider the play as anything other than how it relates to her specific perspective. People–potential audience members who might have different reactions–are going to read this review knowing nothing about the play and decide it’s not worth seeing because it’s not about what M’Damn Zinman thought it should be, and who wants to watch that Amia Desanti be a sanctimonious white girl anyway. This is the type of criticism that stifles conversation. This is the type of criticism that kills art.

She should be ashamed of herself for writing such vitriolic dreck, and for her critical complacency. There’s a way to criticize plays without cutting them at the knees for your capricious satisfaction.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet (and laying down some ground rules)

There’s a problem with the way we look  at theatre.

It’s not that a lot of people don’t like theatre, or “get” theatre, or haven’t been “educated” enough to “get” theatre. It’s not that theatre is too highbrow, or too intellectual, or too expensive. All of those are separate and important problems, but they boil down to one thing: the gatekeepers of theatre don’t know how to talk about theatre.

Theatre critics are the people who stand between the play and the people. They’re the ones you trust to tell you what’s going on, whether it’s “worth” seeing. They’re the ones who experience the play as the every-audience member, approximating every person’s potential experience with their own. And precious few of them know how to write about theatre in a way that does justice to that responsibility. They know how to shred it apart or put it on a pedestal; they know how to sound quippy and incisive and cruel; but ultimately, most theatre reviews are next to useless, aesthetic click bait for news outlets to publish online in hopes of seeming cultured.

It’s not totally the critics’ fault. A lot of it is how undervalued theatre is in America, or how few words critics are allotted to talk about the things they see. But it’s also how unprepared critics are to talk about theatre as an art form. They go into a play expecting it to be like a movie, or unwilling to contribute to the cycle between art and audience that is essential to art’s continued existence. With an ill-formed phrase or an ignorant brush-off, they condemn a play to ignominy and kill its chances at circulation.

With this blog, dear reader, I seek to chip away at these problems. Keystroke by keystroke, I will challenge those reviews which tear theatre down rather than allow it to grow, and dare critics to be better.

I predicate my criticism of critics on the absolutely astounding Elinor Fuchs essay Visit to a Small Planet.” The essay asks any “visitor”/reader of a play to take in the play as a totally objective observer, and learn the “rules” of that planet. What do you think the play is trying to do? What is the reality of this play? And as you try to work the play out, try to work out the process of your working it out. When does the play confuse you? When does it move you? Why? Regardless of whether you like it or not, your job as a reader, first and foremost, is to try and understand what the play is before you check in with what it does for or to you.

This blog is pretentious, dear reader. It’s high-falutin. It’s probably mostly going to be wrong. But I read these reviews and I watch the opportunity these critics are squandering and I want to rip something apart. Because critics can do better. They must do better. American theatre deserves and should demand that they do better.