Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993

Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993

by Frank L. Rich
     
 
As much as any other drama critic in the newspaper's history, Frank Rich came to represent the legendary power of The New York Times and its alledged ability to make Broadway shows into smash hits or close them prematurely. This was despite the fact that some shows he panned ran for years and others closed that he has lobbied in print to keep open. To read Rich

Overview

As much as any other drama critic in the newspaper's history, Frank Rich came to represent the legendary power of The New York Times and its alledged ability to make Broadway shows into smash hits or close them prematurely. This was despite the fact that some shows he panned ran for years and others closed that he has lobbied in print to keep open. To read Rich's collection of reviews and essays in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993, is to relive a turbulent 13 years of New York theater history. During this period, the great American musical fell prey to the British import; the market for serious drama on Broadway fell off precipitously; artists like August Wilson, Kevin Kline, and Holly Hunter appeared; Moose Murders, Marlowe and Carrie opened and quickly closed; and AIDS stole a walth of theatrical talent.

Throughout this collection of over 300 of Rich's best reviews and essays, his original thoughts are amplified by new reflections printed for the first time in this volume. Also included are 11 lists created by Rich that sum up the high- and low-lights of his critical career:

  • My Favorite New Plays
  • My Favorite New Musicals
  • Ten Electrifying NIghts
  • Twenty Indelible Performances
  • Twenty More Indelible Performances: Couples
  • Indelible Ensemble Casts
  • Famous Flops: The Most Unforgettablte Diasters
  • Productions I Most Underrated
  • Productions I Most Overrated
  • The Power of the Times Revisited 1: Rave Reviews, Short Broadway Runs
  • The Power of the Times Revisited 2: Mixed to Negative Reviews, Long Broadway Runs

Editorial Reviews

Walter Kirn
. . .[R]eadable, smart, and worthwhile, a diary of cultural decline. Even if it doesn't glow like the belt of Orion above a distant sea on a moonless dark night of the soul. —New York Magazine
Harlow Robinson
Whatever you think about Rich's opinions, there's no denying he's an impressive writer and thinker. . . .the sting of his reviews has faded with time, and what remains behind are .. .a thorough historical and artistic knowledge of American and British theatrical tradition; an encyclopedic familiarity with . . . theater; and an infectious passion for this evanescent and impossible medium. —The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679453000
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/13/1998
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
1050
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.60(h) x 2.51(d)

Read an Excerpt


MARLON BRANDO SAT RIGHT HERE
Boltax Theatre, April 17, 1980

Say this about playwright Louis La Russo II: The man is sincere. Though Mr. La Russo's latest exercise in kitchen-sink melodrama, Marlon Brando Sat Right Here, is a virtual compendium of sentimental bromides, the author always dishes out the clichés with a completely straight face. The result is a rather weird evening in the theater. Mr. La Russo's large collection of stereotyped characters is forever talking gravely about matters of life, love, and death, but somehow it is hard to resist the temptation to laugh.

Marlon Brando, which opened last night at the Boltax, is not quite as perversely amusing as last season's La Russo offering, Knockout, but it comes close. This time out, the setting is a Hoboken, N.J., greasy spoon frequented by Italian-American longshoremen; the date is 1955. We are in the spring of everyone's discontent. Only a year before, the play's various drifters and losers had tasted the glamour of Hollywood: Marlon Brando had come to town to shoot On the Waterfront. Now the movie people are gone and show no signs of ever coming back. The regulars at Gracie's waterfront dive suddenly realize in one long night full of epiphanies that the most exciting days of their lives are behind them.

Mr. La Russo tells this story in a manner that might be described as paint-by-numbers Saroyan. First he has each character tell the audience his or her lifelong dreams; then those dreams are methodically obliterated. A sour, failed singer (Paul Sorvino) wants to reclaim the affections of Gracie (Janet Sarno), whom he had loved and lost eighteen years before. The local fruit peddler(Leonard D'John) aspires to movie stardom. The appropriately named Fat the Miser (Hy Anzell) wants to go to bed with an equally obese neighborhood woman (Rose Roffman).

There are so many homely hopes to be enumerated that the evening is well gone before the playwright can get around to dashing them. Mr. La Russo tries to wrap things up fast by abruptly injecting his drama with bizarre plot twists. Two characters are murdered, another attempts rape, one man suddenly learns he has terminal cancer and a teenage boy discovers he is illegitimate. Given the play's generally soppy tone, such lurid developments are not so much tragic as absurd.

For all this frantic activity, the actors do not have much to play. Since almost everyone on stage has a heart full of gold and a mind of mush, the performances range from broad to broader. Most of the time, the cast must recite truisms that announce the play's point of view rather than dramatize it. The first act isn't even half over before someone laments that "maybe we expected too much and we dreamt too hard." From there it's on to such lines as "No matter what we do, we all end up alone" and "The smart people are the ones who know how to survive."

Mr. Sorvino fares a bit better than the rest of the crowd by underplaying when possible; as the play's director, he manages to keep the busy traffic moving efficiently through Dick Young's authentic-looking set. Yet the only truthful moment of the evening occurs when Mr. Anzell announces to the assembled that "in twenty-five years, it'll all look like a big joke." Who needs to wait twenty-five years?

        
This was my first review for the Times and the only show I ever reviewed at a dinner theater-in the incongruous setting of SoHo. Even now I feel as if I hallucinated the whole experience. It was pouring rain, I took the wrong subway and ended up sprinting across deserted streets in lower Manhattan to a theater I never saw or heard of again after this night.

I had been assigned this review to begin a long apprenticeship as sort of a floating theater, movie, and TV critic-with an eventual expectation I'd do theater full-time and maybe someday succeed Walter Kerr. I was halfway through writing this piece when I was summoned into the office of the editor who'd hired me, Arthur Gelb, and told that I was being immediately assigned to theater full-time because Walter had taken seriously ill the night before. It was the height of the season, and I soon found myself in a baptism by fire, reviewing big Broadway shows in tandem with the second-string drama critic, Mel Gussow.

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