It’s nowhere near as intense as what I imagine an actor experiences backstage, but I feel a fluttering nervousness before a curtain goes up on a play. I mean, any play, anywhere – on Broadway or the Bowery or in a church basement.
That’s because theater is as live and in-person as art gets. Whether you like it or not, a performance’s triumphs and belly flops come to seem excruciatingly intimate, as if you were somehow partly responsible for them.
That’s part of the reason that though I’ve been reviewing plays for The Times since 1993, I can say honestly that I’m never bored at the theater. Uncomfortable sometimes and even on occasion in pain, but never bored. It helps, of course, that I’m being paid to pay attention. Anything, if you focus on it closely enough, acquires interest, even the seemingly monochromatic.
But more important, theater is one of the few things in my life that I fell in love with early that I have remained in love with. (New York City is another.) I feel in an odd way as if I’m married to it, which means that I put up with it when it’s not behaving well because we have a long, long relationship, and I know the splendors of which it’s capable. It still has the power to make me grin, writhe and cry as nothing else can.
An unfortunately small minority of people feel this way these days, but they are a fierce and passionate lot. Theater criticism should be visceral, at least on some level, an articulation of that fierceness and passion. I usually do a fair amount of research before I see a show – on the history of previous productions (if it’s a revival) and the creative team. It’s part of a reviewer’s responsibility to provide context and background and back story, all the intellectual stuff.
There is always a part of my mind, the note-taking part, that weighs and assesses the shape of a script, the clarity of a performance, the merits of a technical design. But there’s another part of my play-going self that is anything but cerebral, and that’s the part I trust most. Every so often, my note-taking mind checks to see what’s going on with my face. If I’m smiling, the play is working. (This is true, even if it’s a tragedy.) And it’s working on a level that goes beyond artistic balance and precision, though such virtues are always welcome.
I’ve seen plays that are, objectively, total messes that move me in ways that their tidier brethren do not. That’s the romantic mystery of great theater. Translating this ineffability into printable prose is a challenge that can never be fully met. (If it could be, the ineffable wouldn’t be ineffable.) But having the chance to try two or three times a week remains for me a privilege and a painful pleasure. — Ben Brantley, Sept. 9, 2008