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.

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12 thoughts on “Critical Case Study #1: A Brutal Lack of Investment

  1. Well written, bravo! It’s not a new problem, unfortunately – when I worked in the theatre community over a decade ago, her “reviews” were abominable as well. Not just that they were negative – it was the NATURE of their negativity, just as you describe, making careless assumptions and focusing on the wrong things…irresponsible, careless, disrespectful to the art form and the artists. Thanks for saying what needed to be said.

  2. Bravo. Well put and ompletely true. My theater company had the same experience with her and will no longer permit her into our theater. Enough is enough!

  3. I haven’t seen “Water By The Spoonful” yet, and I can’t speak to the claims you lay out (though, you know, on the surface, this doesn’t look great.) Having said that. I don’t know Toby Zinman personally, although she has reviewed my work as a costume designer, and she has reviewed the work of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective — an organization where I am the resident designer and a member of the artistic staff. Some of those reviews for the PAC have been negative, and here’s the thing — I can’t say that she was entirely wrong. We didn’t get it all right every time, and we were rightfully taken to task for those errors — the kind of errors that, you know, artists make while creating art. Sometimes you soar. Sometimes you fall on your ass in front of an audience. It happens. I can look back in hindsight and basically agree with a lot of her critiques – sometimes, you just don’t get it right. She deserves the chance to say so. She has also written us glowing reviews of work that I also agree was good, solid work — and those reviews have brought us new audiences, have opened new doors for funding, and have given us clout as a young company establishing our niche in the Philadelphia theatre community. We owe her a lot for that. I’m grateful to her for that.

    Criticism doesn’t kill art. Sorry, but I just don’t believe that is true. I don’t want to create theatre in a world where everyone gets a trophy for participating and we exist in a perpetual cycle of ass-kissing and self-congratulatory smiles. Art is complicated. Criticism is complicated. Toby Zinman is human — imperfect. And complicated. And it’s not her job to be the marketing director or PR person for your show – it’s her job to give her informed opinion. Should she have done her homework on this one a bit more? Perhaps. But I’ve never once mistaken her for stupid. And I can’t help but wonder, in an age where more and more newspapers are dying such painful gasping deaths, if she’s even getting paid a decent wage for this. I’d be shocked if she still had an editor on staff assigned to oversee her work. Frankly, if I wasn’t being paid for shit and felt like I was working in an empty vacuum, I probably wouldn’t do my homework as carefully, either.

    Do I want to wake up after our next production to read a glowing review over my morning coffee? Yes, unquestionably, yes. It would mean a huge deal to my small company. It would mean a huge deal to me personally. To read something vitriolic and spiteful would really, really suck, and I can imagine it would suck so, so much more if it didn’t seem to try to understand the world of the play, contained factual errors, or needless typos. Yeah, that would suck. But you know what would suck way more? Not having critics attend the show at all. Like it or not, that’s the world I’d rather choose to live in.

    • Thank you for your response, dear reader. I also do not believe criticism kills art. I believe that the type of criticism that Zinman produced here, full of inaccuracies and predicated on a lack of knowledge about the play, kills art. Zinman’s review enraged me not because she didn’t like the production, but because–according to what she ultimately published as her experience of the production–she didn’t engage with it, as is her responsibility as a critic–a responsibility, I should add, that she took on herself. I don’t work for the Arden; I have no stake in how the production fares from a PR or marketing perspective. I’m sure Zinman is a perfectly lovely person. I’m sure she’s smart as a whip and well-informed and perfectly capable of writing thoughtful, insightful, ultimately constructive (which is different from congratulatory) reviews. Which is why she should be embarrassed whenever she puts out reviews like this, which do nothing to serve the conversation about this play or about the production or about art, but rather dismiss the play (and presumably the production, though you’ll notice her review is conspicuously absent of details regarding the production) on what we can only assume, based on what she published, are superficial details.

    • With all due respect, you’ve created a straw man argument here. One can criticize the failings of a particular critic without calling into question the entire enterprise of criticism.

  4. Can you email this to the editors at the Inquirer? Submit a portion of it as a letter-to-the-editor? They’re supposed to be a legit and respected paper. They should be embarrassed.

    Toby’s been nice about my work in the past (I have no idea why, but, “whew!”), but, really, this review is ridic. And you’ve hit the nail on the head: a true critic is someone who ADDS to the cultural/artistic conversation of a community and/or the artistic landscape in general. (In fact, there was a time when criticism was itself considered a kind of literary effort.) From that mindset, even a “pan” can serve audience and artists alike. An informed review can give a vocabulary and framework for future conversation. In fact, I’ve read “pans” that made me want to see something, because the thoughtful way in which the critic explained his/her dislike for the show/production (approached on the play’s terms, not the critic’s wishes) made me think it was something I personally would like. Or it gave me a perspective from which to discuss the play with others: “I understand what the critic was saying, but…” or “I agreed with the critic, the problem really was…” or “The critic was right, the show really shined because of…” In fact, a good critic is one with a point-of-view that a potential audience member can use as a guide post: “Oh, I never agree with x-critic when it comes to comedies — everything she hates I love” or “I always agree with this critic, so I’m definitely seeing this one he raved about”, etc. What Zinman published in this instance is akin to a book-report for which a fourth-grader would get a “D” grade. It’s not valid criticism. It’s more like saying “Guernica” is a bad painting because people don’t really look like that. This review is merely opinion-ism at best. Sheer willful ignorance coupled with laziness at worst.

  5. As someone who engages in theater reviewing, my final pieces in no way resemble the work product of Ms. Zinman that I see here. My approach is to be as helpful to the reader as well as to the people putting on the play, in the sense that I try to fashion any complaints or disappointments as almost notes to the producers and directors, as to what I, as a single viewer, thinks might have helped me engage more with the production or cleared up some questions. I don’t know how much space the newspaper allots to Ms. Zinm, but it looks like about the same space that say the New York Daily News or the Post allot to their reviewers, which is not a lot of space. For the most part, those reviewers don’t squander their space by going off on tangents, proving that even with limited space, fairly comprehensive review can be written. That said, at the same time, the theater company must understand that Ms. Zinman’s opinion is representative of at least one person in the theater. If she had trouble with the production, then they must consider that maybe some other people did as well, and after evaluating their production again, wonder how such an impression could be given. The theater company is under no obligation to make any changes, but should wabt to relook at their work to see if there was anything they did that could have given this impression to at least one person in the audience.

    At the same time, Ms. Zinman or any reviewer should reveal or at least admit to say falling asleep during the production, or attending the production in a particular bad mood or with food poisoning, as such circumstances alsi impact the content of the review. Just the other day, I felt it important to mention that there was an unusual amount of audience restlessness, rustling of programs, people walking about than coming back, incessant talking right behind me even though there had been requests by others around me to ask them to please refrain. My readers can decide if my comments may have been colored by that experience., Also I would have expected Ms. Zinman to explain what some of the “awful” things that she claiims the crack addicts in the play did. That seems to me too broad and judgmental a statement to make about these characters, but I did not see the Arden production, but only the world premiere version in Hartford.

    Oh, and I don’t get paid for what I do either. I do it because I enjoy theater and like tracking various directors’, writers’, actors’,and theater company’s work. I also volunteer as an usher for most ot the New York City nonprofits (and do not write about those experiences) which also furthers my education and understanding of this thing we call theater.

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