Sometimes even the good ones can make you angryalthough not because of any inherent flaw in the art itself.
I attended "Oblivion Postponed" with low expectations. I had not been especially impressed with playwright Ron Nyswaner's screenplay for the hit movie "Philadelphia", which I'd found diagrammatic and sub-standard within the plethora of AIDS dramas...and besides, "Oblivion..." had received a negative review from Vincent Canby in The New York Times. I hasten to add, normally what other critics have to say has very little bearing on my own views. In most cases, we all attend the same performances and write our reviews at the same time, so even if I chose to keep up with my colleagues (and I usuallyoften assiduouslydon't) by the time I read their notices, mine has already been filed.
But because "Oblivion Postponed" opened in a small theatre, to a goodly amount of hoopla and anticipation (for an off-Broadway enterprise, at any rate), the press seats were at first at first restricted to the "overnight" primary criticsand, at that, a limited number of those. In fact, I'd been warned that it was possible that AISLE SAY might not be accommodated at all. But I should try again, the week after opening. I did, of course, and, lo, press tickets were suddenly available. Canby's Times review had scotched the interest of some critical press and the Second Stage's non-subscription audiences as well.
Furthermore, that Times review had been reduced to its harshest element and encapsulized in the Sunday section entertainment guide, where has appeared and will continue to appear, week after week, until the play finishes its limited run.
So the seed of pessimism had been planted in the soil of my disenchantment with the writer's previous work. And my companion for the evening, AISLE SAY's other New York critic, Adasha Greenwood, was similarly disposed. She almost forewent the evening altogether. We expected to be sorry we'd braved that evening's blizzard.
Instead, we found ourselves touched, engaged, amused and constantly fascinated...and it made us angry. I'll get back to that.
First, the play.
"Oblivion Postponed" takes place in a hotel terrace in Rome, where a gay "married" couple are in residence. They are David (David Aaron Baker), who is young, open, friendly and even a little gullible, wanting to believe in the fundamental goodness of the human spirit, and in the existence of karma; and Jeffrey (John Glover), once his teacher, once also a raging substance abuser, cynical, sarcastic and unstable in the sense that his hold on "the wagon" that he has ridden for nearly a year seems tenuous at best.
On this particular day, Jeffrey is particularly stressed, because, against one of the "rules" that they have established as a couple, David has impulsively invited guests for dinner. Those guests are a married couple from the midwest, Patti (Mary Beth Hurt) and Kyle (James Rebhorn). And on first glance, they would seem to be every cultured New Yorker's easy parody of what a "civilian" or "rube" couple is like: with an artistic awareness that seems to go no deeper than kitsch, and a political viewpoint that would warm the cockles of Rush Limbaugh's heart.
But Mr. Nyswaner has no intention of letting us become smug in our expectations. There are hidden depths, to Patti and Kyle, and they are, in the end a closer parallel to David and Jeffrey than superficial details would seem to indicate. More than this I am loathe to reveal, as the play meticulously peels the layers of its characters, and each new layermost anywayis an unexpected turn in the road...and yet, upon reflection, inevitable too. (What's the old storytelling motto: Fresh but inevitable? Mr. Nyswaner has no problem living up to the credo admirably. And at that, he manages to do so without descending into the kind of predigested melodrama that, for me, marred "Philadelphia". No, "Oblivion Postponed", even at its most intense, maintains a high level of wit, emotional truthfulness, and suspense.) I will merely say that the spectre of death haunts everybody, and threatens to destroy the bonds they have with their mates. That destruction is the oblivion referred to in the title, that they are fighting to postpone. Because it will take them someplace new...and unknown...and more frightening still.
Nicholas Martin's direction, and the performances of all mentioned (plus Tony Gillan as a charming but opportunistic servant) rise to the sensitivity of the material. In a cast of equals, it is perhaps Mary Beth Hurt who demands the most notice for the shift this may make in her career. While still extraordinarily attractive, she is no longer the waif-like gamine she used to be. She's a tad heavier now, and though the years between have been kind, they have also, unmistakably, left a mark, and they allow her to credibly portray a woman who is matronly, and terrified that her limited options are slipping away with middle age. (Even as the actress' options and versatility increase...)
So why did the play make us, Adasha and me, angry?
Because of the goddamn New York Times, that's why, and its power, and the irresponsibility of Canby's pen. It has consigned an eminently notable play to undeserved obscuritywhen in fact, it can holds its own next to plays like "Lips Together, Teeth Apart", "Eastern Standard" and the best others of that sensibility and ilk.
It's not that Canby's not entitled to dislike the play and say so. Of course he is. But there's a point at which a critic must be able to separate his opinion of the play from the play itself; if it is a thing of any value at all, that is always, somewhere, apparent, and it's the critic's responsibility to recognize that value and put it in some kind of relief, so that an audience who may wish to find the play can have the opportunity. It's not hard to do, and it takes nothing away from the critic's point of view. The critic also needs to be able to separate his opinion from objective fact. This is a littler harder to do, and there is always a gray area, and a margin for error. But again, it's part of the service.
(On a personal note: back in '84, when I wrote the English libretto for the Public Theatre "La Bohème", the production opened to wildly enthusiastic reviews, the mast majority of them orgasmic. But we didn't get the Times. And so the public perception was that we had been reviewed poorly, when in fact, the exact opposite was true. I had no problem with Frank Rich's opinionI'd been a critic, and dishing it out too long, to feel resentment when some was served up to mebut I had a big problem with phrases that discussed how the audience felt; because he wasn't speaking for the audience. I was there, and their reactionin the house and during intermission chatterin no way reflected his own.)
I was also, I must admit, a bit pissed at myself for having prejudged Nyswaner based on one filmand who knows, really, how much studio interference may have watered down his initial intention? I'm always re-learning the lesson that artists can grow and change and surprise youwithout any warning or previous hint, they can blossom on you. And if you're honest, all you can do is say:
"Well, gee...that was just fine...and I guess I don't know everything."
That honesty thing is the hardest part of the critic game, I think, for some. While analyzing the limits of others, you have to be constantly aware of your own. And by their very nature, most critics don't like admitting their own fallibility.
But they are fallible. Each in his/her own way. And when it comes to a play that doesn't have a Broadway production or powerhouse P.R. behind ita play whose coverage seems not to matter, but for the Timesit might behoove you to at least get a consensus, before making a decision.
Because you can't let any one of them fool you.
No matter who they write for.
No matter how much you respect them.
Any of them.
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