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Play by Play: Theater Essays & Reviews, 1993-2002

Charles Wright critiques fellow critic Jonathan Kalb's Play by Play, a new collection of essays and theater reviews. logo
Over the past few weeks, with Tony, Drama Desk, and other prize-selection deadlines at hand, producers have been opening shows almost nightly in New York. For critics, the result is a frenzy of play-going. At press night intermissions, arts journalists bewail the relentless pace of "theater coverage hell." The pre-awards crunch turns reviewers into theatrical packhorses, swaybacked under pressure -- both external and self-imposed -- to catch every production that opens.

Veteran theater writer Jonathan Kalb takes a dim view of the gauntlet of theatergoing to which so many of his colleagues subject themselves, both at "awards time" and other times. In a new collection, Play by Play: Theater Essays and Reviews, 1993-2003 (Limelight Editions; 224 pages; $30.00 hardcover, $17.95 paperback), Kalb pooh-poohs the notion that working critics ought to "see everything." He warns that the reviewer's job is subject to a dangerous kind of surfeit, and that run-ragged writers risk being "destroyed by the strain of constantly seeking new ways to describe the same old inadequacies, or by the intellectual palsy born of a sustained diet of histrionic junk food."

In Kalb's perspective, it's essential that critics balance theatrical stimulation with adequate reflection, and reflection isn't easy in the midst of chaos. Kalb urges would-be reviewers to spend their student days gorging on "the richest possible array of theater art" -- that is, "seeing everything" -- so as never to "rely on anyone else's assessment of excellence, astonishment, mendacity or mediocrity." But he believes that, once the writer graduates to professional status, he or she ought to be protective of time, energy, and psychic wherewithal in order to avoid becoming part of a jaded chorus of pseudo-critical entertainment industry people.

Kalb, who received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism in 1991, has published books on the works of Heiner Müller and Samuel Beckett, as well as an earlier volume of essays called Free Admissions. He divides his professional efforts among journalism, scholarship, and teaching, and currently is chairman of the theater department at Hunter College in New York City. In the late 1980s and for much of the '90s, Kalb's criticism appeared regularly in the Village Voice. Recently he concluded a four-year stint as drama reviewer for the New York Press, a weekly give-away that's the principal competitor of the Voice; much of the material in the new book comes from his work for that publication.

In Play by Play, Kalb says that his gig at the Press was a reviewer's dream -- "complete freedom to see and say what I wanted, practically zero space pressure... and the chance to appear in print about 40 times a year while most of the productions I considered were still running." It's well known that his tenure at that publication ended on a sour note. In the new book, he states that he was summarily and unexpectedly dismissed, but his account of the episode is admirably devoid of rancor.

Play by Play is a mix of popular journalism, items culled from academic and professional magazines, and lectures offered originally to theater students. As might be expected, it covers a range of topics dictated in large measure by what productions Kalb was able to see at the various times of writing. The author's previous collection included interviews (notably, interviews with Müller and Beckett) and translations, as well as reviews and essays. The new book's content is less varied, and its title -- which suggests a full complement of play reviews in chronological order -- is misleading. Play by Play opens with three articles on the present state of American criticism; then come sections devoted to Beckett, German theater, and the achievements of Robert Wilson and other American avant-gardists. Only the final 90 pages contain the sundry reviews that the title seems to promise.

Jonathan Kalb
Kalb has a quixotic view of theater and of the critic's mission. He came of age, in intellectual terms, at a time when the American stage was embracing James Merrill, Robert Lowell, and Archibald MacLeish, not to mention Edward Albee, Robert Anderson, Jean Kerr, and Neil Simon. It was an era when the country's most distinguished periodicals still allocated considerable space to theater news and criticism; when writers like Robert Brustein, Richard Gilman, Elizabeth Hardwick, Stanley Kauffmann, and even Philip Roth were publishing long, discursive articles on plays and playwrights. "Needless to say," Kalb writes, "no such historical moment is likely to come again soon. September 11 notwithstanding, we live today in an age of astonishing social complacency in which middle-class identity is tightly interlaced with pseudo-rebellious pop culture, and pop culture is disseminated by mass media largely dedicated to discouraging real thinking....The thrum of American media culture, which provides the crucial illusions of safety and normality, is contingent on a leveling of values, and hence a devaluing of expertise. This is why the sentiment 'Hey, everyone's a critic' is so commonplace in our post-your-own-Website time. No Hollywood executive today would think of consulting a serious critic on any issue, and the same is true of Broadway producers. Why should they, when, to a shocking extent, they can now control the critical voices people hear?"

Kalb clearly isn't one of those "critical voices" susceptible to outside control. His enthusiasm expresses itself in explosions of critical association rather than a shower of comfortable adjectives; his writing, on the whole, is too analytic and circumspect to yield nifty sound bites. Kalb chooses his words as carefully as he observes a performance. Appraising John Turturro in Andrei Belgrader's production of Waiting for Godot, for instance, he remarks that the actor's "eyes twinkle with child-like joy during the character's many moments of reflection and memory, and his famous exaggerated sibilants and Brooklyn drawl have a soothing effect that alternates, schizoid fashion, with occasional aggressive outbursts accompanied by mad eyes and a phony foreign accent." Such vivid description, coupled with well informed discussion of the play's literary, historical, and social context, creates a robust record of precisely what artists achieved on a particular night when Kalb saw them work.

As a critic, Kalb's principal frame of reference is theater history, but his associative range extends from classical literature and history to contemporary politics and the avant-garde. If Kalb's voice seems at times unremittingly earnest, he nonetheless manages always to write with a street-wise flair, free of the clunky argot of academic theory. Kalb lived in Germany for a time and returns there frequently; his protracted and continuing exposure to adventurous European theater has purged him of the presuppositions of average American playgoers. As a result, he appreciates theatrical efforts that many of his countrymen may find eccentric or even distasteful, such as Belgian director Ivo van Hove's abstract, revisionist staging of A Streetcar Named Desire and Beth Henley's anti-naturalistic Impossible Marriage.

Since leaving the New York Press, Kalb has founded an Internet journal, Hunter On-Line Theatre Review. It's encouraging that, with ever-diminishing arts coverage the rule among print publications, serious critics are finding outlets on the Web; yet it's disappointing that those outlets, by their nature, attract specialists and enthusiasts but few general readers. What's urgently needed is a way of bringing serious discourse about theater -- Kalb's kind of discourse -- back into the mainstream, where it was 30 years ago. As things stand now, it's not just theater writers who are marginalized, but the theater itself.

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