Theater Critic Frank Rizzo Balances Head and Heart

Frank Rizzo
Theater critic Frank Rizzo ponders the New York Post's longtime theatrical hatchet-man, Michael Riedel. Photo: Mara Lavitt.

It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. This debate questions what criticism is, further questions who is and is not a “critic,” challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be, and further challenges us to think about proper critical comportment.

We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from the debate. In Critical I, we ask critics to tell their own stories and provide their own views of criticism.

Our latest interview in this series is with arts journalist Frank Rizzo.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words.

Frank Rizzo currently is a freelance scribe after 33 years at The Hartford Courant as an arts writer and theater critic. He is a theater critic for Variety and also writes for The New York Times, American TheatreConnecticut magazine, the Hearst newspapers of Connecticut, Theatre Development Fund’s Stages, and other outlets. He especially likes the challenge of writing for varied readerships, trying to engage each through humor, passion, provocation, logic, and visuals to share his theatrical experience.

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What city or town do you live in?

I live in New Haven and have loved the city since I took a three-hour ride from Massachusetts where I was working just to see The Frogs at the Yale University swimming pool in 1974. This epic take on Aristophanes’ comedy, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, featured students Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang in the chorus.

Where did you grow up?

A small middle-class mill town: Maynard, MA, where there were two movie houses: the Peoples’ Theatre and the Fine Arts Theatre. Reconciling those two aesthetics has remained with me my whole life.

Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

On the aisle. Or on a beach.

As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?

Expertise came indirectly as an undergrad at University of Arizona, where I majored in the terrific journalism program and minored in theater, surrounded by bright and curious friends and colleagues. A Shubert Fellowship in playwriting allowed me to go to grad school there, which helped me understand the pains and pleasures of putting on a production.

In what year was your first professional review published? What was the publication?

My first paid byline was when I was 16, in the turbulent mid-’60s, for the weekly hometown newspaper which wanted a column from the “youth-of-today.” I didn’t “review” theater but the Maynard Weekly Enterprise had plenty of opinions. I later became an editor there, one of my first full-time newspaper jobs. I wrote sprawling reviews for the university newspaper, and more crafted pieces when I worked for a small daily outside Boston. By the time I got to New Haven in 1977, I felt I found my consistent voice and aesthetic, little realizing that they’re ever-changing.

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Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?

I’ve covered theater, films, books, sub-cultures (rodeos, circuses, roller derbies, mud-wrestling) and for a decade in the ’80s pop music and rock ‘n’ roll, where I developed versatility in opinion writing (and a ringing in the left ear). Food and restaurant reviewing always intrigued me because of the challenge of language to evoke taste on so many levels with too few adjectives.

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

I think so, but only if they write clearly and engagingly and express their opinions and passions thoughtfully — and have also read The Elements of Style.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

I’m a regular reader of David Rooney, formerly of Variety and now with The Hollywood Reporter. He’s a smarty and can almost convince me to change my mind about a show on which we disagree. Almost. I also admire the commitment to reviewing theater across the country that [the Wall Street Journal’s] Terry Teachout does. He probably most deserves the title of America’s Theater Critic just based on the scope of theater he sees. There are pieces by all the New York Times writers I admire for their often-elegant writing.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

Growing up in suburban Boston, I read reviews from Elliot Norton, Kevin Kelly and (the still wonderful) Carolyn Clay and from their compelling writing in a vast range of styles and aesthetics, I learned that there is not just one way to be a critic. I rarely agreed with [The New York Times’] Walter Kerr, but no one could write with more heart about a theatrical moment that transported him. He kept reminding you of the joy of theater.

Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.

I remember when the great Linda Winer of Newsday did a re-do of her assessment of Edward Albee’s The Goat. What honesty and courage that took; it made me love her writing even more. I longed for the time I could do that too, but most of my re-thinks were fragmentary, where I missed something here and there. While I may have overpraised occasionally because I got swept up in an emotional moment (my Sicilian heritage), I would only second-guess myself in minor measures. But I do regret panning an Elton John concert because I over-intellectualized his music without recognizing that sometimes the heart knows more than the head.

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Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.

I enjoyed giving strong and heartfelt praise to plays by Will Eno, David Adjmi and Stephen Karam, especially Karam’s Sons of the Prophet in Boston that many of my colleagues dismissed or disliked. But I’m most proud of championing Water By the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?

I’ve always enjoyed graphic design, especially in pieces that achieve a kind of visual bliss at the intersection of art and audience.

What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

It often lacks elements of style — or any style for that matter. A little self-doubt, humor or humility can give an opinion authenticity. And too many critics feel the need to rattle on endlessly about the plot without giving perspective.

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

The Internet allows an avalanche of opinion for infinite sources, many of them rubbish, mean-spirited and lazy. But there’s some terrific writing out there too, and best of all there are so many new ways of reviewing. Now you can offer a gallery of pictures with your review to engage the reader; present a video that actually shows off a scene you’re writing about; cross-reference your piece with previous articles and interviews; invite comment and discussion. This makes the reviewing experience richer, deeper and engaging in profound ways for the theater fan.

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.

Readable, clear opinions, but he needs to tell us more of the plot.