Moxie the Maven Gets it Right and Wrong (and Right?)


I’ve been debating what to do about Jon Robin Baitz’s obnoxious Huffington Post piece about writing for TV and film vs. suffering under the tyranny of Charles Isherwood of the Times (who we are to believe, I suppose, is to the theatre criticism world what Pol Pot was to the 1970s, or maybe it was Idi Amin, or maybe it was Welcome Back, Kotter).

Anyway, I’ve read Baitz’s piece a few times and I’ve finally decided that it’s driving me nuts — and it’s getting a lot of positive rah-rah play on the blogosphere because people on the blogosphere reflexively have orgasms whenever anyone trashes the critics at the New York Times, which as a sport apparently predates bowling and archery.

Then, yesterday, I happened to loop onto Moxie the Maven’s blogpost about Baitz’s piece, which deals a little more with Theresa Rebeck’s response to Baitz’s post, followed by Moxie’s response to Rebeck’s response. The question is: Do I respond to Moxie’s response to Rebeck’s response to Baitz or let it all blow over?

One guess.

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Headlined, “All the Views Fit to Print? Charles Isherwood on Whither the Playwrights (Plus a P.S.),” I should probably explain that Baitz was actually calling Isherwood on his piece about how the writer’s strike ought to inspire West Coast-based playwrights — i.e., film and TV scribes whose original inspiration may have been writing for the stage — to return east. Here’s a small sample:

Whatever the inspiration, you dreamed the dream. And then you lost your way. You got the agent after that first play made a small splash Off Broadway. A spec script for a sitcom followed. Then a move to Los Angeles – just for a year – to see what would come of it. The money was good. No, the money was great. The weather wasn’t bad either. The bagels, not so impressive, but then they outlawed carbs.

But are you truly happy, slouching around that sick-souled city of grimy palms and gridlock? Does earning that co-executive producer credit on that flashy network drama really represent the summit of your writerly ambition? Does all that lovely money truly make up for the punishing grind of pitching series and movies to executives 10 years your junior? Haven’t you read any vintage Joan Didion lately?

To you I say, return to the fold!…

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On the one hand, yes, Baitz is right: Isherwood’s blithe ignorance is a little bracing — this idea that making money is somehow bad for a writer (or anyone in the entertainment industry). Isherwood naturally lumbers over to the well of history for examples of New York repatriations he deems honorable, such as that of Clifford Odets, but the whole rhetorical strategy is selective, don’t you think? I mean, Isherwood antes up with Odets, but I could easily see his Odets with an Elia Kazan and raise him a Mike Nichols — two men who segued easily between mediums and coasts without indulging in choosing between them.

What Isherwood is really doing — especially when he specifically praises David Lindsay-Abaire for rebuffing Hollywood’s siren song and implying that Lindsay-Abaire won his Pulitzer Prize, in part, because he stayed in New York — is deploying the old theatre vs. Hollywood paradigm as a wedge issue, which, as Baitz’s correctly notes, shows a complete absence from the reality-based community.

But Baitz, in my view, stumbles, too. With apologies for elisions, here are some selections from his essay:

“And now to the slightly unpleasant part of this essay. Mr. Isherwood, as a critic, will never be noted for his generosity of spirit. He is not Harold Clurman. He tends to be waspish, dismissive, cool, and brittle – as a writer. He can be gratuitously insulting, and his reputation is marred by the general consensus that a good mind is not matched by a particularly big heart. There is a whiff of Grinch in his criticism. Mr. Brantley, more and more seems like a breathless writer of gossip and gush for fan mags, and his intelligence – which again is not in question – seems to fail when it comes down to the big picture. The Times critics present themselves as advocates for consumers, and not as advocates for the theater itself. Unlike Clurman, Ken Tynan, say, or even Frank Rich, who could be withering but always managed to let it be known that he was passionate for new voices, passionate for promise, and uncompromisingly rigorous, as he is as an op-ed writer on Sundays. Speaking of Sundays, the Times used to have a Sunday critic, but have dropped that, thereby handing a monopoly of opinion to Isherwood and Brantley. I would submit that they do not necessarily add incentive to the already tendentious struggle that playwrights face in trying to make a life in the theater. Nor is that really their job. But there is a slight whiff of disconnection in Charles’ essay….

….There are no other critics that matter in NY, other than those of the Times, and when Charles is gratuitously cutting and destructive, and when Brantley is gushy and woozy and adrift in a language derived from OK!, or Teen Beat, it is simply part of the climate now. There are very few playwrights I can think of who won’t come back to NY because of the people who sway audiences by their pronouncements about their work.

As a critic, Isherwood is not without value, though many people are still scratching their heads over his almost Olympian celebration of an inscrutable monologue a few years ago at a Union Square theater. All things are connected. The regional theaters now live in a timorous queue, waiting for that which has been granted thumbs up in Gotham. Used to be much more likely that a playwright could go off to say, Seattle Rep for six months, and then come into Playwrights Horizons – now, you start at Playwrights, and if Charles or Ben doesn’t respond favorably, the regional theaters do not, generally, come a-calling….

….I suggest that the Times critics re-read Tynan, for instance, who was funny and could be ruthless, but was always on the side of the artist, and never innocently hid behind the pretense of being in the hire of the cultural wing of Consumer Reports. All things are connected, Charles (and Ben). Reading your essay yesterday, it occurred to me that you are suffering from that most modern of diseases – a soul-deep isolation, and a growing dislocation — a place from which being a critic of the theater, is dangerous, given how communal the art is.

There is one last point I will make — and it is about the Times itself. I believe that working there can be corrupting on some level, there is a safety in it, and a routine in it, and there is smugness too in the culture pages. Inoculate yourselves with sabbaticals. Maybe some time in Rome, or in LA, before coming back to the Grey Lady with a new understanding of some of the verities in the larger world.”

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Rather clever and underhanded of Baitz to segue from a gentle, understandable refutation of Isherwood’s idea of striking writers “lying on the couch in Hollywood perfecting their video-game scores” to attacking the brand, style, tone and substance of Isherwood’s criticism, hm? Rather clever and underhanded, too, of Baitz to imply that it is Isherwood’s fault (and Brantley’s fault and the fault of the diabolical The New York Times) that playwrights must turn to film and TV in the first place to make a living. It’s a cheap shot and irrelevant, ultimately. Isherwood — for God’s sake, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times — could give everything Baitz has ever written a huge, big, fat kiss of a review and he’s still need to work in film and TV. It’s just the economics of the scene, and you can’t lay that solely at Isherwood — or Isherwood’s brand of criticism, whatever else one may think of it.

And what does citing Harold Clurman have to do with anything? One of the things that people who throw around historical names left and right always, always fail to consider is context. The era that created Clurman easily lent itself to the idea of the critic-as-practitioner, whereas today most critics, to their detriment, find that idea abhorrent — probably because they fear learning that they lack any theatrical talent of their own. That Isherwood “can be gratuitiously insulting,” that there’s “a whiff of Grinch in his criticism” strikes me as not germane to Baitz’s argument; his description of Brantley as “more and more…like a breathless writer of gossip and gush for fan mags” thereby drags into the fray the chief drama critic of the Times, as if he is responsible for the sins of his second-in-command who wrote the piece Baitz is taking issue with in the first place. No, no, write a separate essay about Brantley — don’t blame Brantley for Isherwood.

Baitz laments the fact that Isherwood and Brantley are advocates for consumers, not “advocates for the theater itself,” but then, in a regrettable and insidious swipe at Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), Baitz says that “Isherwood is not without value, though many people are still scratching their heads over his almost Olympian celebration of an inscrutable monologue a few years ago at a Union Square theater.” In other words, if Isherwood advocates for theater Baitz finds inscrutable, Isherwood is a bad critic. If Isherwood advocates for theater Baitz likes, he’s…”not without value.” That’s about as consistent as…mud.

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I agree with Baitz that the Times not having a Sunday critic is a terrible thing, but I think the problems at the Times transcend the disappearance of a Sunday view — and I’d wager that most people, including Baitz, aren’t old enough to remember Walter Kerr’s Sunday pieces, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s didn’t do all that much to leaven the debate. Indeed, it seems to me that everybody’s so-called memories of Sunday review pieces are far hazier and far more warmhearted than they were actually received at the time.

What gets me, however, is Baitz’s belief that there “are no other critics that matter in NY, other than those of the Times.” Here we are again with that same stupid whiny, bitching complaining that the Times is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful. So easy, so wrong. Just how many producers are saying that in New York? Well, some, to be sure. I’d say the old-school producers, which is a rapidly diminishing group, for the most part. In the old days when organizations like the League of American Theatres and Producers encompassed individual Broadway producers, as opposed to corporate entities, yes, the Times had a certain omnipotent power. But Baitz’s martyr-like resistance is out of touch. For example, it is common knowledge these days that the Internet — websites, web marketing, the power of the viral; not to mention the added firepower of the blogosphere — had accelerated what was already seen as the diminishing power of the Times that began in earnest with Brantley’s tenure. (Yes, critics do discuss these things behind closed doors.)

Moreover, Baitz seems not to remember, as he gently lathers up the reader with his fuzzy and kissy-faced hagiography of Frank Rich, that it was Rich who had the power to regularly close shows with his opening-night reviews. Rich was the chief critic for 13 years; Brantley has been at it for 10 or so. Count up the number of Broadway productions that closed in one night, or two nights, or one week during each of their tenures, and I think you’ll see the number significantly lower during Brantley’s tenure. Is this because the quality of the work on Broadway has gotten so much better since Rich was the top critic? Please, stop laughing. It’s because producing and producers, on top of becoming corporatized and in many ways standardized, have also learned how to create shows that are designed to be critic-proof. And this idea isn’t even really new — I remember a play in 1984 called “Whodunnit?” by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) that was eviscerated by Rich yet still ended up running six months — I remember the producers giving interviews in which they made it clear that they would run the play regardless of what Rich said. Ask marketers; ask innovative advertising folk in the industry what drives ticket sales, and the New York Times is not going to be the first thing they say. Yes, a Times rave is nice, but not absolutely necessary. Where the Times makes a big difference is OB and OOB, and God knows Baitz’s relationship to OOB is non-existent. Baitz writes that Isherwood is “suffering from that most modern of diseases – a soul-deep isolation, and a growing dislocation — a place from which being a critic of the theater, is dangerous, given how communal the art is,” but is that to assure us that Baitz really has a pulse on what’s going on? On the basis of what evidence can he possibly say that? On a blogosphere in which we’re forever wanting to champion new voices, forever wanting to put an end to workshop and development hell, we’re astounded and thrilled when a Jason Grote can have an amazing Off-Broadway run — and so where is dear Robby in any of those struggles? Has Baitz forgotten that he was anointed the golden boy back in the early 90s?

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This last point brings me to the final point I’d like to make about Baitz. He writes that working at the Times “can be corrupting on some level,” that “there is smugness…in the culture pages.” Well, it certainly didn’t seem to bother Baitz in 1994 when the Times published nearly 3,000 words on the happy home life of Baitz and Joe Mantello, the Couple of the Moment in New York Theater. Yep, I’d say the Times was pretty good to Baitz. Maybe he should acknowledge that for a change instead of painting himself as one of many victims.

As for Moxie the Maven taking on Rebeck’s comment on Baitz’s piece….sigh. I really don’t blame Rebeck for writing what she wrote. But at the same time, Moxie shouldn’t use Rebeck’s agreement with Baitz as a pretext to take another potshot at Rebeck’s work. Yes, Rebeck may be a little on the sour grapes side because “The New York Times whacks you on the head because of some utterly inane new rule they’ve come up with as an excuse to dismiss your play,” but many playwrights — including Baitz — are struggling to locate coherent aesthetic principles and preferences in Isherwood and Brantley’s criticism, and that, not Isherwood’s isolation, is the problem. (Not that any writer should write in order to please critics, I should add.)

Then Moxie makes the same mistake — the same pissy, twisted, innocuous, petty, grouchy, petulent, nyah nyah nyah mistake — that Baitz makes when Moxie dismisses Rebeck by decrying the fact that “her plays aren’t really challenging the form.” Is that, or should that be, I ask, the sole determinant for good playwriting? Must everything radicalize? Must everything innovate — and if so, how, and who says? Is there no more room for solidly constructed plays?

Those who insist that there can only be progress for there to be richness have as limited a view of contemporary American dramaturgy that Baitz so despises in Isherwood.