Critic John Lahr on Critics As The Enemy


John Lahr with his father Bert Lahr

John Lahr with his father Bert Lahr

John Lahr reviewed New York theater for half a century, starting with a now-defunct Manhattan neighborhood weekly and ending as the longest-lasting chief drama critic for The New Yorker magazine.

He is also the son of Bert Lahr, best known as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, but with a long and stellar career on the New York stage. His mother Mildred Schroeder was a Ziegfeld Girl – also a theater person.
So I asked him what his family thought of theater critics.
This was during an interview with Lahr for DC Theatre Scene timed to the publication of his most recent books – “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” his acclaimed biography now out in paperback, and “Joy Ride,” his 20th book, a new selection of his profiles and reviews in the New Yorker.

notesonacowardlylionLahr largely sidestepped the question about his family’s view of theater critics – “Dad was a huge star; he always got good reviews” — although he did say that when he first became a critic, his parents “were worried about me. I was outspoken. They didn’t want me to offend people.”

When I wrote up the interview, I thought it more important to focus on his views of the great theater artists he’s profiled and reviewed — Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, David Mamet, and Sarah Ruhl – all of whom are in the new collection.

I do include some of his comments about critics in the article – for example, how he became a critic in the first place (“I don’t think anybody sets out to be a drama critic”) and how he views the New York Times as the main guilty party in the “corrupt system” of reviewing.

But, while more specialized, his take on critics seems worth further detailing here.

I asked him why theater critics are often seen as the enemy – why there is so much hostility.

“It’s not undeserved,” he replied, because of the way criticism is done, “insofar as the coverage is very shallow; critics are ill-informed, write poorly, have no sense of theater history, just write the plot. Criticism is what the play is saying, and what it says in the context of theater history and the wider culture.” The faulty approach “is not necessarily because of the critics but because of the magazine owners.”

Lahr concedes that “nobody likes to be judged. I don’t like it when I get a bad review. If you hold yourself up, sometimes you get slapped.” But what theater artists don’t like about critics “are the cheap shots. Most of the people who talk in that nasty way have never made anything. If you’ve made anything, your voice has a different tone.
Criticism is a life without risk.”

Lahr says he personally has received no hostility from the people he’s reviewed. “My experience is even if you’re critical of the play, if they feel you’ve engaged with the play, and seen it, even if you can’t embrace it in its entirety — being taken seriously is enough for them.”

His view of critics is partly shaped by having been on the other side of the relationship. When he was literary manager of Lincoln Center, Lahr says, “the first production we did was Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, with Al Pacino.” He felt despondent the night that the critics attended. “I saw it as a totally botched performance. Tennessee arrived drunk. Al Pacino forgot the golden gloves
I wrote in my diary: This is a very sad night.
“7:30 the next morning, I get a call from Julius Irving,” the producing director of Lincoln Center theater. “He read the first paragraph of Clive Barnes’s review – a rave. Julius said: ‘Learn anything?’
“When you’re working in a theater, you get 50 reviews. Hardly any of them interpret the play. They tell you what the play was. They don’t tell you what it meant.”

The hostility to critics, he says, is specific to America. “In other theater cultures, the critic is seen as an essential part of the process. If you make a play or a book, you think you’ve done something, but a lot of writers I know don’t quite know what they’ve made. Critics are a bit like biofeedback. You need the eyes.”


Critic John Lahr’s theatrical joy ride



Beijing Opera Star Zhang Huoding Debuts in New York

One of China’s most celebrated stars, Zhang Huoding, is making her U.S. debut in two classic Beijing Operas at Lincoln Center, The Legend of the White Snake and The Jewelry Pouch.


Scenes from The Legend of the White Snake. Click to enlarge.
Zhang Huoding

Zhang Huoding

As Jim O’Quinn noted in a recent article on Huoding’s debut, “Those unfamiliar with Beijing Opera (known in previous generations as Peking Opera) will have a great deal to become accustomed to. The faces of the actors are painted red, white, black, yellow or green to indicate character and status, the action is highly styled and artificial; the performance is presentational, taking place in front of an embroidered curtain, with minimal decorative props…; the score, rather than being created specially by a composer, is based on sets of commonly used tunes, played by a small onstage orchestra dominated by a stringed instrument called jinghu and supplemented by plucked strings and percussion. The story of the play is told in recitation, while the singing is more concerned with expression of emotions.”

“Classic” Beijing Opera began only two centuries ago, a modern art form compared to the 2,000-year history of Chinese Opera in general. But The Legend of The White Snake is based on one of what the Chinese call the Four Great Folktales, a legend that goes back before the Ming dynasty, about an immortal snake (though looking like a very lovely woman) who falls in love with a man but is done in by a monk. This doesn’t do the story justice of course, but it isn’t the plot that engages. And, truth be told, the aspects of Beijing Opera most likely to appeal to untutored Western audiences  —  the acrobatics and martial arts — are less literally spectacular than we’re used to, given such productions brought to New York, such as Monkey Journey to the West in 2013.


What does come through, above all, is Zhang Huoding’s grace and charisma.

Scenes from the Jewelry Pouch. Click to enlarge.

Broadway Revealed, From Wicked to Kinky Boots: NYPL Exhibition

Broadway Revealed: Behind the Theater Curtain, an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center through January 31, offers an odd glimpse of what goes into shows, through the 360-degree photographs of Stephen Joseph, as well as costumes from the library’s collection and lent by such shows as Wicked and Kinky Boots.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged, then scroll down to “view full size,” click on that — and be patient.


The Oldest Boy Review: Sarah Ruhl on Tibetan Buddhism and Separation Anxiety

The Oldest Boy Saito Keenan-Bolger SchneiderWhat would you do if a Buddhist monk appeared at your door, claiming your three-year-old son was the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan Lama, and wanting to take him from you and raise him in a monastery in India?

If you’re the lapsed Catholic mother from Cincinnati married to an immigrant Tibetan chef in “The Oldest Boy” Sarah Ruhl’s new play at Lincoln Center, the answer is: Give him up.

Since, for a New York audience, this constitutes an altogether unlikely scenario, “The Oldest Boy” is probably best appreciated as a parable. At one point (the otherwise unnamed) Mother wonders how Mary and Joseph felt about Jesus running away to teach when he was 12 years old, and then asks: “Once you have children, does worry become a placeholder for thought?” Later she says: “Sometimes I think good mothers have to think they’re bad just in case, and it’s only bad mothers who think they’re good. Like: to keep a plane in the sky you have to constantly worry that it will fall down.”

What “The Oldest Boy” offers, besides a meditation on the anxieties of motherhood and an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, is a visually splendid production overseen by director Rebecca Taichman, with performances that range from luminous to beatific.

Celia Keenan-Bolger, who was so wonderful as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, here plays the mother, a former professor of English literature who no longer saw the virtue of her calling after her mentor died, and, one senses, has been on a quest for fulfillment ever since. In what counts as a long flashback, we see how one rainy day she walked into the restaurant of the man who became her husband, although she was engaged to somebody else and his family was arranging a marriage with a Tibetan woman for him. James Yaegashi plays the husband (Father) as only slightly less patient and calm as the two religious men who come visiting, the monk (Jon Norman Schneider) and the lama – a higher-ranking monk – portrayed by James Saito so convincingly that it comes as a surprise that he’s had roles in “30 Rock” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The son, the oldest boy, is a bunraku puppet voiced by Ernest Abuba, an adult – an excellent idea, in my view; let’s have fewer child actors and more puppets.

Ruhl says in a note that she met in real life somebody whose biography more or less matches that of the puppet character – the child of an American mother who was recognized as a reincarnate lama at the age of three, and “enthroned” in a monastery in India. Still, the complete and repeated certainty with which she establishes the fact of her character’s reincarnation makes the audience feel a bit force-fed.

The most hardened skeptic, however, can be won over by the work of the designers, especially on a second stage that resembles a huge rectangular picture window above the main stage, where we are treated to one gorgeous tableau after another.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged. 


The Oldest Boy

At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center

By Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Rebecca Taichman; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Anna Yavich; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Darron L West; puppet design/direction, Matt Acheson; choreography, Barney O’Hanlon; stage manager, Charles M. Turner III..

Cast: Ernest Abuba (the Oldest Boy), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mother), James Saito (a Lama), Jon Norman Schneider (a Monk), James Yaegashi (Father) and Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura and Nami Yamamoto (Chorus).

Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission.

Tickets: $87

The Oldest Boy is scheduled to run through December 28.


Titanic Returns With Original Broadway Cast

Brian d'Arcy James singing from Titanic, as he did 17 years ago.

Brian d’Arcy James singing from Titanic, as he did 17 years ago.

Seventeen years after “Titanic: The Musical” won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the musical will be presented by Manhattan Concert Productions Monday, February 17,  as a concert at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall with most of the original Broadway cast, including Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, and Brian d’Arcy James, as well as “newbies” Ryan Silverman and Jill Paice.  They will be accompanied by the New York City Chamber Orchestra and a chorus featuring nearly 250 singers from across the country.

“The chance to get together with all the family we had on board was something I wasn’t going to miss,” says Michael Cerveris in one of the videos below.

“I think they felt sorry for us; we were supposed to do ‘Rebecca,’ and that didn’t happen,” says Ryan Silverman in a video below, explaining why he and Jill Paice were cast. (He’s kidding.)

Coincidentally or not, with preparations for the Lincoln Center concert already underway, last month producers David Mirvish and Barry and Fran Weissler announced that they will be presenting the first Broadway revival of the musical, with a different cast, in the Fall of 2014.

Brian d’Arcy James and Martin Moran sang at the rehearsal, first “The Proposal/Night Was Alive” and the end of the opening from “Last call for Boarding!” 


Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston

Book by Peter Stone


BECKY ANN BAKER, as Charlotte Cardoza

JOHN BOLTON, as Charles Lightoller

JONATHAN BRODY, as John B. Thayer

SCOTT BURKELL, as George Widener/Frank Carlson

MICHAEL CERVERIS, as Thomas Andrews

MINDY COOPER, as Edith Corse Evans

ALLAN CORDUNER, as Henry Etches

DAVID COSTABILE, as William Murdoch

ALMA CUERVO, as Ida Straus

JOHN CUNNINGHAM, as Captain E. J. Smith

BRIAN D’ARCY JAMES, as Frederick Barrett

LISA DATZ, as Madeleine Astor

DAVID ELDER, as Frederick Fleet

DAVID GARRISON, as J. Bruce Ismay

JODY GELB, as Eleanor Widener

ERIN HILL, as Kate Mullins

ROBIN IRWIN, as Marion Thayer

JOHN JELLISON, as Edgar Beane

JOSEPH KOLINSKI, as Benjamin Guggenheim


DREW MCVETY, as Herbert J. Pitman / J.H. Rogers

MARTIN MORAN, as Harold Bride

JILL PAICE, as Caroline Neville


MICHELE RAGUSA, as Alice Beane

RON RAINES, as Isidor Straus

RYAN SILVERMAN, as Charles Clarke

TED SPERLING, as Joseph Bell / Wallace Hartley

CLARKE THORELL, as Jim Farrell


Music Director, Kevin States

Directed by Don Stephenson

Manhattan Concert Productions presents a concert performance of Titanic: The Musical live at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.  This concert performance will feature almost all of the original cast members from the Tony Award winning Broadway production, as well as a 220-strong chorus of singers from across the country, accompanied by the full forces of the professional New York City Chamber Orchestra.

Experience the Tony award-winning score first hand this Spring for one night only!

Creative Team includes: Liza Gennaro, Choreographer; Narelle Sissons, Set Designer; Stephen Terry, Lighting Designer; Jon Weston, Sound Designer; Howard Werner, Media Designer; Telsey + Company, Casting; Ian Weinberger, Assistant Music Director; Kimberlee E. Winters, Assistant Lighting Designer; Aubrey Russell, Assistant Stage Director; Heather Cousens, Principal Stage Manager; Jennifer Rogers, Assistant Stage Manager; Juniper Street Productions, Production Manager.

Manhattan Concert Productions’ inaugurated their Broadway Series in February 2013 when they presented a concert performance of Ragtime, which included 200 performers on stage performing to a sold out audience of almost 3,000 concertgoers at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.  The concert featured a star-studded cast including Tyne Daly (Cagney & Lacey, Judging Amy), Norm Lewis (Les Misérables), Patina Miller (Pippin) and Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon).

Stop Hitting Yourself Review: Rude Mechs Spice Up Lincoln Center with Lots of Cheese

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

“Stop Hitting Yourself,” playful chaos brought to you by the acclaimed Austin theater collective Rude Mechs, is the first stage show I could call cheesy and not mean it as an insult: Before the play begins, a half-naked man is lying unconscious on his side with cheese dripping towards his navel. Near the end of the play, the seven performers smear cheese all over each other, most of it taken from a working fountain on stage that spouts queso. In-between, every now and then, somebody on stage eats some nachos.

Lincoln Center describes this show, which it commissioned for its experimental LCT3 and which runs through February 24th at its Clare Tow Theater, as “part Pygmalion, part Busby Berkeley, part self-help lexicon.” I wouldn’t describe the play this way, actually – although, yes, the half-naked man is eventually dressed on stage in a tuxedo; there’s some tap-dancing and a few songs; the audience is asked to repeat the words “improvement,” “charity,” and “queso.”  But there is so much else stuffed into this 90-minute show  — audience participation, meta fiddling around, digression upon digression — that “Stop Hitting Yourself” is hard to sum up.

Diligent theatergoers will detect something approaching a plot. The seven eccentric characters are competing to win the Queen’s Charity Ball, which each year selects a single worthy cause to benefit from its largesse. A Socialite (Lana Lesley) has kidnapped a Wildman (Thomas Graves) from the forest in hopes that his cause of saving the earth will win the contest.  She persuades him to adapt to conventional society, because “a lot of people won’t be able to initially listen because of what you look like and how you behave. So I’ve got two weeks to teach you how to be like one of us.”

There is also an obvious theme, which is established before anybody utters a word. You know something’s up just by looking at Mimi Lien’s slightly deranged, helter-skelter set —  not just the unconscious man and the queso fountain, but 17 chandeliers, a Roman arch, a piano, a full set of medieval armor, a life-sized statue of a man with a fig leaf…all of it (except the half-naked man) painted a bright gold. If that’s not clear enough, there is an enormous dollar sign in flashing lights.

“Oh, look: Money,” says the unconscious half-naked man (our Wildman), once he’s stood up and plucked a twenty dollar bill from his wild hair.
“Does anybody want it?” He does in fact give the bill to a volunteer from the audience—which is wonderful for that brave soul, since tickets to the show only cost $20. Later, a different character will give out single dollar bills – but at a price. At another point, the Queen (Paul Soileau, dressed as a drag queen) telephones somebody in Row E (there’s a telephone in front of the seat), and asks that theatergoer to rank the rest of us according to our attractiveness.

That’s not the only randomly inserted scene. Several times, the actors stand before us in a row, break character, and offer random confessions about money or sharing or society –  Soileau admits sheepishly that as a teenager he enjoyed reading The Fountainhead.

Amid all this busyness are some choice lines by writer Kirk Lynn, one of Rude Mechs’ artistic directors:

The Unknown Prince (Joey Hood): “Humans made Styrofoam and hairspray and so nature made that and that is natural. If bumble bees made plastic you would say, ‘we have to protect the plastics.”

The Maid, who was a classics scholar (Heather Hanna): “I think a real artist selects the aspects of his existence he regards as really big—and then he isolates that big stuff and cuts out everything insignificant and stupid and annoying and all the accidents, so he can present his view of existence how it should be—not copying reality, but as a judgment on it. His selection constitutes a judgment: everything included in a work of art—from theme to subject to pretty colors or rhyming—all that acquires value by the mere fact of its being included, of being important enough to include.”
“Stop Hitting Yourself” may not cut out enough to be “real” art, but if you’re open to its anarchy, it’s real entertaining.

Stop Hitting Yourself

Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow Theater (150 West 65th Street)

Created by Rude Mechs

Writer: Kirk Lynn, director: Shawn Sides; sets: Mimi Lien; costumes: Emily Rebholz; lighting: Brian Scott; original music and sound: Graham Reynolds

Cast: Thomas Graves (The Wildman), Heather Hanna (Maid), Joey Hood (Unknown Prince), Hannah Kenah (Trust Fund Sister), Lana Lesley (Socialite), E. Jason Liebrecht (Magnate), Paul Soileau (Queen)

Tickets: $20

“Stop Hitting Yourself” is scheduled to run through February 23, 2014

Macbeth Reviews: Ethan Hawke on Broadway Upstaged by Witches, Set

macbethatLincolnCenterThe three male witches are the stars of the Lincoln Center production of Macbeth on Broadway, even though Ethan Hawke plays the title character, according to several of the reviews on opening night, which were not positive. “Tepid” and “mishandled” writes The Hollywood Reporter; “dismal and dark” writes the New York Times; a “turkey” writes AMNewYork.

Not all the reviews were negative: The Associated Press called it an “elegantly noir production.”

But most were disappointed that the witches and the set upstaged the lead characters. Ethan Hawke is “oddly uncharismatic and too internalized to grab the spotlight from the tall, stark, elegantly vaulting set designed by Scott Pask,” wrote Newsday.

The Daily News is more positive about Ethan Hawke — “the 43-year-old actor churns up a cauldronful of emotions” and “ably anchors Shakespeare’s tragedy” — but, again is upstaged by the the witches, especially one “wearing a furry getup that looks like she raided Lady Gaga’s closet. She’s followed by a creepy coterie of actors on all fours. Between those crawling beasts and Mark Bennett’s spooky music, there’s a not entirely welcome Halloween-party feel at times.”

“Much of the text is garbled,” writes Vulture/New York Magazine. “…there are images I won’t soon forget: a trick bouquet of wilting flowers, Banquo’s ghost in a glittering necklace of knives. Unfortunately, Macbeth is more than just what meets the eye; even the witches knew to feature tongue in their recipe.”

Click on any photograph to enlarge it