On the Dangers of Extremism — In Theater Criticism



I’ve always been infatuated with the idea that Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty before airplanes existed, yet the level of detail at the top of the statue, barely visible from below in that pre-flight era, is as precisely executed as any other part. Bartholdi was literally designing for his day as well as for history. Well, somehow I feel that’s easier for an artist — a sculptor, in this case — than for a critic, especially a theater critic. He or she has the duty to interpret for the moment, while at the same time interpret for a quarter-, half- or full century later. Good luck.

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Debatable and/or dubious as this comparison may be, it flashed to mind as I read Chloe Veltman’s review of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, which ran at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco through July 5. The play, consisting of The Zoo Story, Albee’s breakthrough 1958 play, paired with Homelife, a prequel penned in 2004, is odd and audacious: I’m hardpressed to cite another artist returning to a work after four decades so as to tinker with it. It’s as if Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Unity Temple outside of Chicago in 1904 and then went back in 1954 and added a whole new wing. Yet it occurs to me that the notion of an artist re-engaging with his own material is not necessarily terrible by definition. Indeed, it might have been a brilliant new wing and worth the critical conversation that could ensue.

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I also happen to think Homelife is The Zoo Story‘s equal — bookends in the Albee psyche.

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But Veltman, as is her right, disagrees:

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Though the two plays complement each other in some ways, I’m not sure they should be produced together. More to the point, I’m not sure if “Homelife” should be produced at all.

My problem with this is she never actually deals with the reasons behind her stated unsurety. It’s an extreme phrase and it’s disturbing to read it. Mind you, the rest of the review is well done. For example, notice how she sets the scene:

…While almost everything about “Homelife” is careful, measured and internalized — like Robert Brill’s blandly stylish off-white living room set — “Zoo Story”, staged against a toxic green backdrop, bristles with animal energy, heart-on-sleeve passion and danger.

But while “Zoo Story” had me completely engrossed, “Home Life” almost made me go to sleep. I don’t think that the problem lies with Taichman’s production or the quality of Rene Augesen and Anthony Fusco’s acting. The play feels completely staid and stale and I’m not sure if there’s enough in it of interest to resonate in any particularly revealing way with the action in “Zoo Story.”

Certainly this narrative is critically acceptable: people do want to know what the experience was like for the critic and if the prequel made Veltman sleepy, that’s important, if damning. When Beckett/Albee ran at Off-Broadway’s Century Center in 2003, the first-act trifecta — Beckett’s “Not I,” “A Piece of Monologue” and “Footfalls” — equally bordered on torture for some people, despite the genuinely glorious presences of Marian Seldes and Brian Murray. Yet as much as I, too, found that first act rough going, I’d never posit the idea that a Beckett play (or three) ought not be performed. I believe in Vegetable Theater for the critic as part of a healthy diet: theater that may not taste as great as other theater, but is nutritious for you nevertheless.

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Doing her journalistic due diligence, Veltman, in her review, goes to explain why Albee wrote the prequel and how his dramaturgical rationale plays out:

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“Homelife” could never work as a standalone play. It’s just too plodding and cliche-ridden… [O]ne of the wonderful things about “Zoo Story” is its strangeness. I like the mystery that enshrouds both Peter and Jerry. Why do we need to have Peter’s life explained away?

And that is a legitimate question to ask. (If you don’t know The Zoo Story, click here.) At the same time, here is a point we should consider: To what degree was it incumbent upon Veltman, who by writing in a blog format could expound at any length, to clue us in more fully to Albee’s thinking, perhaps by linking to his rationales and explanations. (This great Times interview came up second on a Google search.) Instead, we’re given a signal that perhaps the prequel, which didn’t receive universal raves in New York, either, shouldn’t be performed at all. Of course, it’s all an academic question in that it’s Albee who gets to make that decision, but it does serve as a reminder that critics have to be careful how they articulate their views. Veltman’s review, after all, will be read today (though the production just ended) but also tomorrow. And that’s why critical extremism in defense of dramaturgical liberty is a vice.