I chatted a bit yesterday with my friend James Barbour. A couple of blogs ago I talked about going to see him in Nightmare Alley, the new musical that opened at The Geffen on Wednesday. Jim plays the lead character of Stan Carlyle. I talked about Jim being especially good in it but the play itself, I felt, needed a little tune-up. Since that blog several reviews have come out saying exactly the same thing (the L.A. Times review was eerily similar, in fact). For some reason Jim was a little depressed over the notices, which I found surprising. He's a pro and like us all he's been through the wringer with the press before. I certainly have and I know Jim has. When he did Jane Eyre on Broadway I know he took some nasty hits from the press on that one. The thing is, in this case the notices have all been spectacular for Jim himself. They just have a problem with the show.
Anyway, it all got me thinking about the critics. I blogged about this once before a month or so ago. But it's a big part of the actor's life, eventually, so I thought I'd write a little more on it. Some actors never reconcile the role of the critic in their professional lives. In an email yesterday to me, Jim nailed this specific feeling. He said, in effect, "we work so hard on a project, fill it with such passion, and with the swipe of a pen it's all undone." And of course he's right. I emailed him back and told him it was even worse when the play happened to be something you've written.
Here is an excerpt from a review of one of my plays called The Language of Cherubs from a newspaper in Chicago called The Windy City Times.
It's the last and longest piece that sticks in my mind as one of the vilest pieces of theater I've ever seen. The Language of Cherubs is anything but. The Language of the Despicable and Weak is more like it. Essentially the monologue of a dying southern woman (played with one-note weepiness by Jan Ellen Graves), the piece is an overview of her life with her husband. At first, their life together seems pedestrian, the stuff of thousands of American couples. But as the woman rambles on, we discover a dark underbelly. Her husband was a pedophile, preying on the high school girls he taught and exploiting his position of authority to take advantage of them. In one of the most chilling moments, the woman begins reciting the names of the girls ... and the list runs on into the dozens. But as she crawls back into her bed to sink under the oblivion of painkillers, with her Pat Boone look-alike husband at her side, she tells him that, in spite of all this, she really 'loves' him. What? It's hard to muster up any sympathy for this pair: a sexual predator and the woman who unquestioningly stands by her man, in spite of the rather strained efforts of the playwright to jerk tears from the audience (along with banal musical touches of recorded new-age piano music from Jim Brickman).
I told the Artistic Director of the theater producing this play they should put that quote on the marquis: "One of the vilest pieces of theater I've ever seen!" I joked about it for awhile with the actors. We all had a good time. "Vilest piece of theatre." That's a good one.
The truth is, stuff like that takes the wind out of a writer's sails. It's one thing to get a bad review as an actor (and trust me, I've gotten more than my share of those) but it's another to get one as a playwright. As a writer one's intellect is on trial. As an actor, merely one's choices. And the funny thing is, this same critic, a few months earlier, had hailed my play Praying Small as "a modern masterpiece."
My teacher of note and mentor and friend, the brilliant actor Michael Moriarty, has a bit to say on this 'reading your notices' business. He stopped reading his reviews back in the early eighties. He told me, "if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones, too. Best not to read any of them and keep trusting your instincts." He also told me something I have oft quoted, "Critics are like eunuchs at an orgy. The can watch, but they can't join in." In fact, I told Jim that yesterday and got a laugh from him. I hope he passed it on to the hard-working and talented cast of Nightmare Alley.
When I was doing Arnold in The Boys Next Door for the first time at Wayside Theatre in Virginia, I had a problem with doing such a dead-on impression of a mentally challenged man. I felt a little seedy doing it. I called Michael and told him this. He said, "Does the play offer redemption?" I said, yes. He said, "Then don't give it another thought. We can do anything as artists as long as what we're doing offers redemption." I have kept that piece of advice in the forefront of my mind for many years now.
Michael also told me recently he thought the late Pauline Kael, the former esteemed film critic for The New Yorker, was largely responsible for his career taking a nose-dive in the late seventies. Kael attacked Moriarty at every available opportunity. In particular a film he made called Report to the Commission, in which he starred. She lambasted it. She attacked his mannerisms, his sensitivity as an actor, his choices, even his physical appearance. Kael carried a lot of weight in the critic business back then. She was the grand dame of critics. Roger Ebert worshipped her. New York's intellectual community lived and died by her opinion. This is the same Pauline Kael who famously wrote upon seeing Last Tango in Paris, "Brando and Bertolucci have altered the face of an art form." At that time Moriarty, Pacino, DeNiro, Voight and Hoffman were the up and comers. Kael loved Pacino and DeNiro. Hated the rest. Michael says he went from A-lister to B-lister following her evisceration of him in that film. He may be right. She really did have that much influence back then.
I have twice written to a critic following what I felt was an especially unwarranted attack upon my work. The first was at Arena Stage when I was doing McMurphy in a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The critic, one Donald Ames, wrote, "Mr. Morts ably carries this sordid mess on his capable back." He went on to say wonderful things about me and my performance but scathingly attacked the show itself and the other actors. I don't remember all I said in the letter, but essentially it was the same thing that Jim said to me yesterday. That is, how can you destroy all of this work and passion, thousands upon thousands of hours of it, with one careless and thoughtless swipe of your pen?
The other time was in Rochester, New York. I was doing a show called Redwood Curtain and I was not only directing it but acting the role of Lyman Fellars, the mysterious Vietnam Vet living in the humid forests of Northern California. The lead role in that show is the half-white, half-Vietnamese girl, Jeri. It was being played by my then girlfriend, Eileen. I thought she was really good in the role. When the reviews came out, again my work was praised but they attacked her mercilessly. I was incensed. I sent off a scathing letter to the critic for the main Rochester paper, the Democrat/Times. As it turned out I was invited to a charity event a short time later and came face to face with this critic. Back in those days I was little more volatile and actually considered punching the guy in the face. I was that angry. But he came over to my table and asked if he could join me. He was a very nice man which pissed me off even more. After a few sparring words he said to me, "let me give you some advice. You can't try and protect the actors around you that aren't as good as you are. That's a losing battle. You will never win that battle." At the time I simply smirked at that comment. Years later I think he may have been on to something.
Here's the bottom line for Jim. He's in a play that's not as good as he is. He can't protect it.
Sondheim wrote in Sunday in the Park with George when the lead character is depressed about his own critics, "You've got to move on. Show us more. Don't worry about what others are saying. So what? Let others make those decisions, they usually do. You've got to move on."
On June 11 my play, Praying Small, makes its West Coast Premiere. The play has garnished embarrassing accolades throughout the country. It has been hailed as a masterpiece, been given awards, submitted for the Pulitzer, critics have reached deep into their bag of adjectives for this one. And what if L.A. doesn't agree? What if my director pushes it into a realm of absurdism that mangles the message of the play? What if it's just too coarse? What if the scatological language is too much? What if my performance in it is pedestrian? What if one of a million things go wrong?
Well, I'll tell you. I move on. I show more. I write again. I do something new. I shake it off. I plunge myself into another artistic orgy and let the eunuchs watch all over again. I trust I have something to say. Something others want to hear. Something that offers redemption. And after that, I do it again. And again. I move on.
See you tomorrow.