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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By a similarly specious argument, Brustein, who was on the Pulitzer committee, justifies the prize to Suzan-Lori Parks for Topdog/Under dog, though he sees it as less than her finest. He must have a microscopic eye to be able to differentiate between Parks's pretentious but puny products.

In another review, the very un-Byronic Bryony Lavery becomes "Byrony" Lavery, and Wilde's Algernon Moncrieff turns into "Montcrieff." These, surely, are misprints; but shouldn't an author proofread as well? Instead, Brustein thanks his Yale University Press copy editor, the very person who has done him dirt. And what about, in a review of the revival of the musical The Frogs, Nathan Lane's "love affair with the folks out front (and they [sic] with him)"--couldn't someone have caught that? I am worried, too, when Brustein attributes the poor reception of this adaptation of Aristophanes he himself had originally commissioned to "my humor-impaired brethren."

Still, how on the mark Brustein is when, reviewing Arthur Miller's self-serving After the Fall, he writes, "Beware the man who discovers the moral satisfactions of personal guilt. He will never give you another quiet moment."

Brustein is always generous to what he perceives as daring, politically relevant, innovative, modern--or postmodern, as in the Dutch director Ivo van Hove's abysmal production of Hedda Gabler. He excuses "some loss in thematic clarity" as "a chance to see Ibsen alive and kicking on the stage." More likely being kicked black and blue. Or do you condone a Hedda who goes around in "a scanty pink shift" and won't even "put on a pair of panties," but "has no hesitation [in] spitefully stapling numerous bouquets to the drywalls of the "unfinished dump" she lives in?

In the musical Spamalot, Tim Curry is "one of the few cast members who doesn't [sic] double as other cast members." But I double up at Brustein's singing the praises of the unspeakably vulgar and inept Sara Ramirez. And can "something transpire between" two characters (in Doubt, which he undervalues)?

Conversely, I applaud his pronouncing King Lear "possibly the greatest play ever written." But should he, listing its greatest interpreters, omit John Gielgud but include F. Murray Abraham? Should he translate the Latin accommodo as an infinitive rather than first person singular?

Then again, I have nothing but admiration for several pieces about theater in Australia and South Africa. Such expensive trips were surely subsidized by those countries, yet Brustein is not afraid to criticize some of the shows severely. Still, I wouldn't call someone "a Kidman-type actress," which may be as patronizing to the performer as offensive to good English. And even in South Africa spellings like "delapidated" and "braggadoccio" would be rightly resented.

I can, however, sympathize with salaam aleikum turned into the Yiddish-sounding "salaam aleckheim." One salutes any rapprochement between Arabs and Jews, although Brustein's yiddish is faulty too when ferbissene become "fabissene."

But how will Egyptians (and others) feel about Nefertiti morphed into "Nefertete"?

What I deplore more is Brustein's admiration for two such, to me, manifest phonies as Robert Wilson and Lee Breuer. Just from Brustein's detailed descriptions of their works, a serious person should recognize furibund folly. I am no stickler for realism in the theater, but flights of fancy are one thing; flying characters, for no conceivable reason, are another. And what about "a vertical screen, on which is [sic] projected supertitles"?

Promptly, however, Brustein redeems himself with a fine, detailed appreciation of Hallie Flanagan Davis, whose Federal Theater was, while not allowed to last by an unsympathetic government, a noble experiment. Less commendable is a tribute to Suzan-Lori Parks, bracketed there with Gertrude Stein and, more absurdly, James Joyce. And, incidentally, in Arthur Kopit's play title (and play), Dad is Hung, not Put, in the Closet.

Incomprehensible to me is Brustein's grudging assessment of Jack O'Brien's production of Henry IV at New York's Lincoln Center, the best Shakespeare I have ever seen in America, and not so shabby by any standard. And then to top this with special praise for its most dubious element, "Ethan Hawke's punk rocker Hotspur." But then, the radical critic goes for taking chances, however extreme.

At this point, I must give up further pouncing on Brustein's "small errors," but cannot forgo adducing "a character whom [sic] Bloom believes most fully represents" something or other. I appreciate the rhyme, but where is the reason in that accusative? There may be something unintentionally whimsical in spelling a co-respondent in a divorce case as "correspondent."

But I admire Brustein's judicious evaluation of George S. Kaufman in his review of the Library of America edition of his principal works. How perceptive is this:

Once in a Lifetime recalls an ancient time when movies were adapted from what used to be called 'the legitimate theatre' as opposed to the present when Broadway musicals are based on Hollywood movies, a time when film producers stole talent from the stage instead of vice versa, a time when showmen considered themselves shamans, and could condescend to lowbrow studio philistines. Today, it is not so easy to determine which is the more compromised art.

Similarly illuminating is an essay on Shakespeare's creative use, or misuse, of geography, as Brustein visits Mediterranean locales from the plays. No less fine is the tribute to Primo Levi apropos Anthony Sher's splendid monodrama, Primo, culled from Levi's writings. A judicious essay about the late Richard Gilman contains this valuable point: "What distinguishes a critic from an opinionator is the capacity to describe what one sees, and possibly suggest a better alternative." The concluding piece, using biographies of Laurence Olivier and Elia Kazan as a springboard for some shrewd assessments of their differences and similarities, I find extremely valuable.

In it, Brustein properly faults Richard Schickel for calling The Changeling (which Kazan poorly directed) "minor and hard to stage." Brustein labels this "mildly philistine," and continues, "The Changeling is a masterpiece, a psychological study of love between two monsters as subtle as any in the language, and difficult to produce only if you've never before directed a classical play. . . . It is not necessary to establish your modernist credentials by obliterating the past."
Reading such things, you may well feel like kissing Brustein on both his modernist cheeks.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.