Friday, August 07, 2009

metaDRAMA: What Sort of Critic Are You?

Another interesting thing came out of my recent comment-board conversation with José Angel Santana, the director of William Inge's recently unearthed one-act The Killing, a work "buried" in the collection of the eight "new" one-acts that make up Summer Shorts 3.

Santana asks, explaining that the quality of my review was lacking, "Would a found Williams, Miller, Strindberg, Chekhov play receive such short shrift?" To this, my response was "Sadly, no." And I'll now elaborate: the sense I get from my peers and "betters" in the critical community is that we all ought to get down on our knees and absolutely worship "the classics" and that if we don't, we lose our credibility.

However, I'd argue a sort of inherently damaging-to-the-community reverse bias here: if you would rather cover/produce a new work by a established playwright, and barring that, cover/produce an previously unproduced/unpublished work by an established playwright (regardless, in both cases, of quality), then when exactly does the new, unestablished playwright get produced? The question I ask in this topic is "What Sort of Critic Are You?" but it might just as well be "What Sort of Critic Do We Need?" and I'd argue that it's the one from Ratatouille, that is the one who is going to speak out for the new. In this particular instance, the New York Times chose to run a feature on the "discovery" of twenty-five new works from William Inge rather than to review the one currently being performed, mainly because to them, it's of no importance whether it's good or not.

This certainly seems to be the case in David Sheward's fair but frightening Backstage review, in which he asserts that while the actors and director produce an "aching presence," the
"brief script has too many holes." So, in a review that praises only the cast and crew and pans the writing--with a nod to the exterior, nothing-to-do-with-the-play fact that Inge's suicide will somehow make The Killing resonate--why exactly does Sheward conclude his article by saying that this play is "chiefly valuable as a new addition to the canon of one of America's underappreciated playwrights." He's saying that you should see it for the performances, not the play, I get it, but so then why is this "valuable"? Why not cover something new that's actually good? Someone who, if they get attention and ink now, may be able to build a canon of their own.

I refuse to automatically give respect to anyone or anything--a product of my childhood, I'm afraid. In my mind, the choice to judge all playwrights equally, regardless of when it was written, or by whom, is the mark of true fairness. So I'll say it now: I'm going to be the sort of critic who would rather take a risk on a new three-hour play by Lucy Thurber than on seeing a three-hour revival of a recently discovered play by Williams or O'Neill.


José Angel Santana, Ph.D. said...



A Death Requested, and Other Tales

After watching “The Killing” by William Inge, it’s best to take a slow, quiet walk home. This is a play that benefits from reflection, a story that sticks in the mind and demands further thought, no matter how dark those thoughts may be.

The play, which languished among a stash of Inge’s unproduced works at a college library, is making its premiere in Series B of Summer Shorts 3, a program that, on the whole, acquits itself better than Series A, with which it runs in repertory at 59E59 Theaters.

The first piece, Carole Real’s “Don’t Say Another Word,” stays true to its title, jumping into a couple’s droll conversation just as the going gets good, and leaving as soon as the jokes run dry. Straightforward and enjoyable, it’s a smart way to begin a collection of one-acts.

“The Sin Eater” by Keith Reddin, however, is imprudent on every level. A modern retelling of “Electra,” it is misguided in concept (the original is too wide-ranging to be raced through in a brief time) and execution (the clichéd dialogue is delivered in a mishmash of styles).

A sharper use of the short form can be found in “If I Had,” Roger Hedden’s tale of two landscapers, one of whom longs to inflict harm on a rich client. The play delivers quite a bit: a little risk, a couple of laughs and an idea or two to consider. While it’s not a flawless work, its efforts are certainly worthwhile.

Then comes “The Killing.”

In the play Mac (Neal Huff) brings Huey (J. J. Kandel) home after the two meet in a bar. Within a few minutes Mac reveals that he wants Huey to kill him, ending a life of deep despair. Knowing that Inge struggled with depression and committed suicide adds an even stronger undercurrent to Mac’s plea, and that awareness, combined with the tension of whether the request will be carried out, leads to a play that is both bleak and riveting.

José Angel Santana’s direction is wisely restrained, and the two actors deliver truly heartbreaking performances. “The Killing,” a superb piece of theater, is given an intelligent production here. It’s a story of loneliness and great pain, one that explores the saddest parts of the soul.

Series B of Summer Shorts 3 is in repertory through Aug. 27 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; (212) 279-4200,


lindsay said...

After going through four, at times, painful years of an English Degree I am VERY skeptical of what is deemed 'a classic.'

Who's the guy who makes the determination? What's the criteria? Does every play by a certain writer get automatic classic status (as sometimes feels the case?)

And we should all be allowed to hate the classics. Some of them anyway....