Another Problem with Theatre Criticism

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Another problem with theatre criticism, it seems to me, can be neatly encapsulated by an examination of Adam Feldman’s review of A Bronx Tale. Unlike my views of Stewie’s reviews — in which I not only often disagree with the substance of the criticism but find that the substance has been torn asunder by a streak of vituperative bitterness — I generally agree with Adam’s reviews, meaning that I do not find substance being surrendered to cleverness. To me, though, A Bronx Tale slips as quality criticism a bit. His lede: “Nearly 20 years ago, when Chazz Palminteri first performed A Bronx Tale, many people assumed that this coarse, morally stunted solo play was a work of autobiographical nonfiction.” I’m not clear that he was there 20 years ago; certainly he wasn’t a critic. Frank Rich had nifty ways of clearing this hurdle — he’d write that such-and-such element “recalls” some other element or he would otherwise artfully acknowledge that he hadn’t seen the original production of Medea.

The meat of the matter for this post, however, concerns Feldman aiming at how the “risible climactic sequence involves, in immediate succession: a hate crime, a breakup, two murder plots, a rescue, a reconciliation, a fatal fireball, an assassination, a silent-scream sequence and an anguished cry of ‘Nooooooo!'” He cries, “This is not a slice of life. This is a slice of processed cheese,” and I do hear him — in my New York Press review of the play, I wrote, “Credulity is stretched a little, sure, and I do wonder whether all of these things could have really happened-or maybe Palminteri’s well-told tale was just a little tall.” The problem is that old nemesis, that old devil incarnate, suspension of disbelief. If we don’t believe Cyrano or any man could have had a nose that size, Rostand’s climax is risible, too. If we argue with regard to Long Day’s Journey that all of those conversations, all of those confessions, all of those concerns, all of those discoveries, all of those speculations and emotional disfigurements, all of those cataclysms and superlative arias could not possibly have occurred within the space of a single day, O’Neill’s best play (some say) is fruitless to fathom.

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And this is the challenge critics face: What is the tripwire for dramatic plausibility? I’d argue that Adam may have one tripwire and I another — vive le difference, as they say. To demean A Bronx Tale because it may indulge in literary or dramatic liberties with a set of known facts for for the purposes of storytelling, however, has to be viewed as a little bit hypocritical; O’Neill did rather the same thing.

In one of my graduate school classes, I raged about the utter improbability of Oedipus Rex — it’s ridiculous to expect anyone (except perhaps the Greeks) to believe that everything that happens to Oedipus happens in a single day. (We also know it’s a single day because Aristotle argues that the play is the premier example of tragedy in the Poetics, and tragedy, he states, requires a unity of time.) Yet if we actively refuse to succumb to the ridiculousness — if we relegate improbabilities and implausibilities to a status of being “risible” — we effectively deny ourselves the opportunity to burrow underneath these tricky dramatic caverns and experience something satisfying, both as general audience members and specifically as critics.