The Magazine

Theatrical Man

On and off the boards with Robert Brustein.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By JOHN SIMON
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But how neatly he cuts down The Invention of Love by "the intellectual skywriter" Tom Stoppard (his bête noire): "There is not enough plot here for twenty minutes of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight." How concise and telling is this about Peter Brook, who deliberately exchanges comfortable seating in his theaters for hard benches: "With no intermission, Brook still expects his audiences to suffer for his sins." Quite rightly Brustein castigates the overrated Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet, and even the supporting cast, "almost all of [whom] sounded like BBC announcers or gay Oxford dons, including the women." Much as he admires Tony Kushner (way too much, if you ask me), he perceives Homebody/Kabul as "large talents being dissipated in a work that never quite seems to know where it is going."

Brustein is good at balancing censure with praise. Thus about one of Edward Albee's execrable plays: "The Goat is far from a great play. But it is a play that sneaks up on you, shakes you by the shoulders, and demands your reluctant respect." Nicely put, though I'd rather be reached through mind and heart than shoulders. But no one could quarrel with the tribute to Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in Private Lives: "A couple with the finesse of experienced dancers in a play that resembles a ballet even more than it does drama."

Yet when Brustein says of Caryl Churchill's Far Away that "like so many paranoid fantasies it is quickly becoming a deadly accurate description of modern life," I buy the paranoid fantasy and the deadly, but boggle at accurate description. Reviewing an actual fantasy, Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends, about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Brustein has a brilliant paragraph on the "middlebrow playwright" and "highbrow critic," showing why they couldn't be even imaginary friends. "In one thing, however," he concludes, "they were alike. Neither would have appreciated the reductive way their essentially divergent lives have been forced into a symbiosis on the commercial stage."

Brustein likes political theater, but not politics in criticism. He says, with only slight hyperbole, that the British actor Simon Russell Beale's American reputation was "wholly created by the New York Times's Ben Brantley. The British may have lost their Empire," but they still enjoy "the connivance of Yankee critics who have not yet thrown off the colonial yoke." Too bad that in the same review Brustein spells Alan Ayckbourn as "Ayckbourne."

Small matter. But what about proclaiming Stephen Adly Guirgis as having "the potential to become one of our most powerful writers for the stage"? This about Our Lady of 121st Street, which I described as so many crudely-tossed-together actor's exercises. Brustein goes for dramatic statements: Salome's dance of the seven veils in Wilde's play "may be the first striptease in recorded history." Then what about the descent of the Assyrian love goddess Ishtar into the Underworld to retrieve her lover? At each of seven gates she enticed the keeper by shedding one of her seven garments.

In the Actors Studio production of Salome, Brustein overpraises the Herod of Al Pacino, despite gross hamming and Bronx-accented speech including such mispronunciations as "mien" made disyllabic. He rightly singles out the Jokanaan of David Strathairn and the Herodias of Dianne Wiest, only to misspell them as "Straitharn" and "Weist." But he can do worse, as when he writes "Walter Bernstein's and Martin Ritt's The Front," which requires the possessive only after the latter.

How right he is, though, telling his "old friend" Jules Feiffer, apropos The Bad Friend, that "he needs to make his dialogue less quotable and his characters less defined by their politics . . . to capture the flowing, stammering, unpredictable quality of life." Yet in the same column he praises Derek McLane's "kaleidoscopic set" in kaleidoscopic spelling, which next shifts to "McClane." But I cannot strongly enough disagree with the appraisal of Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics as "a truly sweet play," and the author as a "gifted playwright." This Pulitzer Prize-winner seems to me to have made it largely on our politically correct push for multiculturalism.

Languages are not Brustein's forte. His French offers "grande amour" and "tableaux vivant"; his German has "unserer" for "unser Shakespeare." Names are another problem: His colleague at the New Republic shuttles between Lee Siegel and Siegal. Yet how right to impugn practitioners of "Shakespeare Authorship Denial" as "people who ransack the arcane in order to avoid the obvious." But then, why be so forgiving of Britain's Jonathan Miller, whose direction has butchered countless operas, as "the smartest person I know . . . and so even his more harebrained ideas deserve to be respected"? Is Brustein another Yankee critic unable to throw off the colonial yoke?