Criticizing a Critic
Filichia objects to the idea that a review he wrote years ago could be read as supportive of Bobbi Boland.
On my next visit to the site, I saw a headline that stated, "Re Bobbi Boland author; a rave from Filichia. B'way shoulda known better." I clicked on the link and saw a note from someone who is either named or uses the e-name "bsomers." It began, "Florida Girls, written by and starring Nancy Hasty," then gave a quotation from my review. "First the good news: Nancy Hasty is a most gifted actress, portraying no fewer than 15 characters at a small town beauty pageant. Now the better news: Nancy Hasty is an even better writer than she is an actress." -- Peter Filichia, Theater Week.
Yes, indeed, that's what I wrote after I saw Florida Girls at the now-defunct Cafe Arielle on 42nd Street on June 11, 1990. But that was over 13 years ago. So, bsomers, I would think that the expiration date (or, if you prefer, the statute of limitations) on my review ran out long ago. Do you really believe that what I saw in the spring of 1990 was precisely what other people saw at the Cort Theatre in the autumn of 2003? For one thing, the two people I know who saw Bobbi Boland said the problem was Fawcett. Both told me that she was unsure of her lines; believe me, Hasty was not.
I see about 300 productions a year, which means that I caught Florida Girls about 4,000 shows ago, yet I remember it more than I do some shows I saw last month. I can still see Hasty on a darkened stage, playing a young teen who drives a long distance with her parents to meet her grandmother for the very first time, more than a little unsure of whether or not she's going to like the lady. Once she does meet her, she determines that the woman is a little too old and strange for her. So imagine how our teen reacts when her folks tell her that they're going to leave her with grandma for a week while they go on vacation! My heart broke for poor Hasty, distraught as could be, pleading with her parents not to do this to her. I wonder if this scene that I recall so fondly even made it into Bobbi Boland.
I really think it misguided of bsomers to assume that Florida Girls with Nancy Hasty Off-Off-Broadway was the same show as Bobbi Boland with Farrah Fawcett at the Cort. For Bobbi Boland (with six characters) wasn't simply a retitled Florida Girls (a one-person show). If I'd given an opinion about a 1990 movie or a 1990 novel, okay; those wouldn't have changed in the dozen-plus years since I'd encountered them. But with different productions of different versions of stage scripts, one size does not fit all.
Producer Joyce Johnson may or may not have been telling it like it is when she said in her statement to the press, "I decided to close the production now because we learned in previews that the play simply does not work in a Broadway house. This work debuted in a more intimate theatre some years back, which is where I first saw Bobbi Boland. The vivid characters that I saw in such a small setting did not transfer to the Cort. It's as simple as that." Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. But the fact is that I didn't see Bobbi Boland in a Broadway house; I saw Florida Girls in an Off-Off-Broadway space that couldn't have had 100 seats in it. That's the show I thought was just swell.
So did Davidnyc, another All That Chat! poster who came to my aid. "Florida Girls is a fantastic evening of theater," he wrote. "Outside of seeing Lily Tomlin's In Search of (the first time she did it), seeing Ms. Hasty perform Florida Girls was the best one-person show I've ever seen." My hero!
I know what bsomers is suggesting: That a rave from me is an all-too-commonplace occurrence, that I've written so many that each has become meaningless. It is true that a majority of what I write is positive; part of that is because I prefer to write about shows I like and to eschew comment on the ones I don't. The best thing about writing for TheaterMania "only" on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is that I can pick and choose my topics. That's why you didn't hear much out of me about Urban Cowboy, As Long as We Both Shall Laugh, The Play What I Wrote, Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, Prune Danish, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, The Smell of the Kill, or Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (though I may be taking on that one in a week or so to make a point about another issue).
Of course, I also have a job reviewing New Jersey theater for the daily newspaper called The Star-Ledger, which means that I have no choice in what I review and must write about each and every professional production that opens in the state. While I do tend to see many a show as half-full rather than half empty, I certainly write pans when I have to. Just ask the people connected with Having Our Say at the Theatre Project in Cranford or Perchance to Dream at Alliance Repertory Theatre Company in Bloomfield, both of which felt my terrible, swift sword this week. Last year, when I panned the execrable Paper Mill Playhouse production of Annie, some All That Chat! readers expressed surprise that I could be so harsh -- but ritalouise, who works at Paper Mill, wrote that I could be as rotten as any reviewer. I guess that's true.
Funny: When I was growing up in Boston in the '60s, our critics included Elliott Norton of the Record and Kevin Kelly of the Globe, both very hard markers, and Samuel Hirsch of the Herald, who was decidedly not. Whenever a show premiered in Boston -- and that happened as frequently as three or four times a month in the wondrous age of pre-Broadway tryouts -- Hirsch was the one I read last and least. Why? Because his reviews were usually positive. "He likes everything," I'd say in disgust -- and this, I suspect is how bsomers regards what I do. I still recall Hirsch's writing that the 1966 musical A Time for Singing "restores meaning and stature to the contemporary musical theater." I was furious because I thought it stunk; so did most other critics, and the show closed on Broadway after only 41 performances. The thing is, I now feel that A Time for Singing may have been a little ahead of its time. This was a musical version of How Green Was My Valley -- a pretty ambitious idea -- and it dared to rely more on music than spoken dialogue, in much the same way that the British pop operas would do in the next decade or so. (The Warner Bros. cast album includes little more than half of the score.) As the years have gone on, I've come to think more fondly about A Time for Singing.
Does this mean that Hirsch was right and I and the others were wrong? Who knows what "right" or "wrong" means when it comes to theater? I'll bet that, somewhere along the line, bsomers adored a show that few others did. We all have those, and for our own reasons. I greatly admired The Retreat from Moscow, a play that has more detractors than adherents, because I once went through a tough divorce and saw much of my life replicated in that script. Plenty of what William Nicholson wrote was precisely what I was feeling through all of 1977.
But, as far as Florida Girls and Bobbi Boland are concerned, I would say to bsomers what Colonel Pickering said to Henry Higgins in another show I liked: "Come, sir! I think you picked a poor example."