Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Critics and Lightning Flashes...

Like most people in the theatre I have a love/hate relationship with the critics. Michael Moriarty, who has had some of the most soaring reviews possible and, during the late seventies, some vicious notices, too, most notably from the late critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael, once told me this one night after I had gotten one of the bad ones: "Critics are like eunuchs at an orgy, they can watch but they sure as fuck can't join in." I have always remembered this.

The last time I did Deathtrap, one of those plays I kept getting hired for over and over, I was a bit bored with it. So I consulted with the director and decided to do the character of Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeves played it in the movie with Michael Caine) with a slight, self-conscious stutter. At the time I thought it a fairly good idea. Plus it had the added benefit of making me shake loose some line readings I had already set in stone (from having done the play so often). Apparently one of the critics didn't get it (or maybe my stutter was just not believable) and the review read something like, "If Mr. Morts had bothered to learn his lines, he might have made an effective Clifford." Oh, boy. I was furious. And, as always for the actor, powerless to do anything about it.

Early on I got into a habit of looking up old reviews before I did a character. I would trot over to the Lincoln Center Library and pour over every written word about the play I was about to do. On occasion it was really useful. I have no compunctions about stealing from another actor, particularly if they happen to be a good actor. One I remember is when I did Wait Until Dark. I found a review of when Robert Duvall had done the play on Broadway in the sixties. The critic (I forget which one now) commented on how frightening it was when Duvall had casually put on a butcher's smock before attacking the blind girl with a knife so as to not get any blood on his clothes. That bit is no where in the script. It was the actor's invention. So I stole it. And sure enough, when the reviews came out for the play, every single one mentioned the butcher's smock.

There are others that come to mind. When Peter O'Toole, one of my favorite actors, did Pygmalion in London and New York in the eighties, Frank Rich said, "Watching Mr. O'Toole in this role is like watching a very dangerous secretary bird on stage." Always liked that. When John Gielgud did a play in the seventies on the London stage, he had a death scene apparently. I think it was a Pintor play, but I don't recall exactly. The anonymous critic wrote, "When Sir John lets out his last breath he makes a curious sound as though a small bird had been released from his throat." Liked that one, too. Richard Burton was the recipient of a great line by Walter Kerr upon doing Equus in the seventies. Burton, of course, at one time had been the heir apparent to Olivier's throne but had, in the minds of many, squandered his talent on second rate movie projects. Kerr wrote, after having seen opening night in New York, "Mr. Burton may be the most promising middle-aged actor on the planet." Talk about your back-handed compliments. And then there is the venerable, afore-mentioned critic Pauline Kael when she famously wrote about Last Tango in Paris (my blog references this, of course) and Marlon Brando. "Brando has changed the face of an art form." Wow.

Dorothy Parker has had a few memorable quips during her short stint as a critic for The New Yorker. The most famous being her comment on Katherine Hepburn in a dreary little piece of writing in the thirties, "Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Any actor worth his salt can quote that one. But my personal Parker favorite is her review of a play called I Am a Camera. It is also noteworthy as the shortest review ever printed in that magazine. It said simply, "No Leica." Still makes me smile.

So what is the purpose of the critic? To let the reader know whether the play is worth paying money to go see? Or to help the process by commenting on the nuts and bolts of the production itself? Ostensibly so the company can go back and make changes? I don't know.

The notice that has made the largest impact on me as a writer/director/actor, however, is one written in the nineteenth century. The great actor David Garrick had toured with Shakespeare's Richard III for many, many years. He was, arguably, the last great English stage actor before Olivier inherited the mantle. While doing Richard in London an anonymous critic wrote this remarkable sentence: "Watching David Garrick play Richard is like reading Shakespeare by lightning flash."

Now, THAT is how it should be. My imagination soars thinking of what that performance must have been like. What an amazing thing to say about someone's work.

Come see From the East to the West at NoHo in February. Cause that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna make the audience feel as though their watching a play by lightning flash. That's a promise.

See you tomorrow.