Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "To Define True Criticism"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Friday, 7 May: To Define True Criticism

I'm proud to say "I'm not a critic; I review plays." When people gush thanks at something I said about their play ot their performance, I usually say "All I do is tell the truth about what I see," because I think reviewing plays is more descriptive than judgemental.

Ideally, after an objective "review" lets people see, as it were, the same elephant, a reflective "critique" of it's strengths and weaknesses, its successes and failures, its connections to similar and different plays, its place in the week, the season, and the history of theater --- a process of opining, of thinking about broader aspects. And this is where two people, looking at the very same elephant, can disagree about likes and dislikes.

I don't usually review plays I haven't liked; I try to get my opinions to the director, who might benefit from the negative comments that have justly acquired the description "criticism", but my silence is probably a more eloquent "review" than anything written could be. And, of course, I could be wrong, couldn't I?

But "criticism" can be a dialogue between two people whose opinions about a show disagree. Consider:

Subject: cant find much.
Date: Thu, 6 May 1999 06:59:33 EDT
dear larry,
i am an avid follower of theater in boston and subsequently have met many actors and directors. i absolutely love reading reviews and comparing them to what my experience was at any particular play. now heres the problem.i saw "Difficult People" at the Works Theater in Davis Sq., Sommerville, but i cant find any review on it. did you review it? did you see any reviews on it? any help would be greatly appreciated.
a fan of yours,

Subject: Re: cant find much.
Date: Sat, 01 May 1999 09:24:56 -0400
Robert David Sullivan reviewed it in the PHOENIX OnLine:
" Difficult People certainly doesn't qualify as easy entertainment, but it never becomes preachy or heavy-handed. I don't think Layzer would like it, though -- not sweet enough."
I just hit the wrong button!!!
[ I just remembered that Skip Ascheim reviewed "Difficult People" in The GLOBE the very first week. Rachel Shatil said he hated it, but I only read the GLOBE on Thursdays.]
I was going to add that Sullivan was much kinder to the show than I would have been. I'm trying to talk to Rachel Shatil about it now.
[ I did have a long conversation with her over the phone. ==ls ] There won't be a review in The Mirror because I had nothing but questions:
Why did Jane Lukoff's Rachel keep moving that suitcase around, as though she were arranging flowers or creating compositions?
What was going through her mind during that long, rambling, disconnected monolog from Frank Gayton's Simon that opened the show?
Why the tea? That's just schtick.
Why did people stand so close to one another? They were talking into one another's noses.
Rachel says "Do you have a slipped disc? does your NECK hurt when you move your head?" But Gayton kept clutching his BACK, so there was no connection. Forrest Walker's Layzer was so abrupt and hyper as to be unbelievable, not someone to be endured so graciously.
I found all the characters unbelievable. I kept asking myself "why": Why does Simon keep complimenting/insulting everyone over and over and over again, like a broken record? Could his sister believe either end of these extremes? He batters the truth around like a ping-pong ball in every sentence, and that only made me turn off; he quickly became an act rather than a person, so I couldn't take anything seriously.
(Actors refer to a "through line" for a character, a truth or an objective that is always true. I never saw a basic orientation toward the matter of the play in any of these characters, just knee-jerk surface action.)
The only one that seemed to me to have had a life before the play started, was Stephen Capriulo's Benny --- the irrelevant character. I know he loves Rachel, I know he knows she never will, and thus I know why he gives her money and mends her shoes. The writer doesn't like him, but I did. I wondered what the play would have looked like if Capriulo and Gayton were to play the other's part.
I wondered, when Layzer talks twice about someone "shot by ther Lebanese from some tower or other" --- is this true, or is he lying? I wonder because his Job is bilking people out of charity donations, from which he takes half. He is in the "Pity Me" business, he's in England only because Simon paid his fare, he probably expects to live off Rachel just as her other lovers did, and when it's clear that won't happen out comes the paper and he makes his pitch. So, is the relative that was shot the one spot of cold reality in this frothy silliness, or is it a self-serving lie by a total charlatan?
Rachel is a total enigma to me. She listens to everyone without comment or reaction. I know nothing about her except what Simon says, and he always talks on both sides of his face about everything. In the one flurry of self-assertion she has at the end of the play she says she LIKES medicine! That seems a flimsy reason for the last fourteen years with that pair of proto-doctors.
The final tableau, with Simon and Rachel sitting comfortably with feet up and teacups in hand chuckling about the silliness of Layzer, while poor Benny comforts himself with his saxophone in the other room, was the first time throughout that I felt any solidity in those people. I never did see any solidity in Layzer at all. And unless I wonder about the "rest" of these characters, about the lives that are temporarily Interrupted by the happenings of the play, all I get is a flurry of unconnected funninesses that don't matter to anyone. I didn't like the play at all, and I didn't understand what the director and the cast did with it, because none of it helped me understand the play. And as a matter of policy, I don't review things I don't like. I take these complaints to the director, not the public.
Unless someone, like you, happens to ask.
I assume you liked the play a lot more than I did, right?
What did you like? Why was it a success?
I've shown you my opinions. Show me yours.
===Anon. ( a k a larry stark )

Subject: Re: cant find much.
Date: Fri, 7 May 1999 07:42:22 EDT
Dear Larry,
First I would like to thank you for answering my e-mail. I must have missed the other reviews but yours was greatly appreciated.
Confirming your suspicions I did have a different experience but there were a few commonalties. I did not understand the use of the suitcase, nor did the saxophone seem to be coming from a different apartment (it should have been softer, more distant). As far as Jane Lukoff's Rachael is concerned I found a nice development of character. She begins the play a slave to Simon and slowly builds a resistance to him until she erupts. The tea did not seem shtick to me. She played it as a natural avoidance response.
Frank Gayton's Simon, although portrayed a little stagy, came across as downright despicable. I don't know if that was the playwright's intention but it worked for me. He was an effective antagonist for Rachael, Layzer, and Benny.
Forrest Walter's treatment of Layzer was a bit over the top at first and I thought to myself how is he going to maintain that throughout the course of the play. Much to my surprise he not only maintained it but added layers to the character. He was abrupt, nothing short of a hummingbird on stage but as the play progresses I realized that that was Layzer and it became endearing. Steve Capriulo as Benny was great. Little exposure big impact.
As far as the play itself goes I always approach a translated work with a bit of skepticism. But the story seemed to remain intact if a bit muted.
I had a different take on the plot. Simon wanted his sister to marry, I believe, simply for appearances. Rachael, on the other hand, enjoys being an independent woman but also wants to please her brother, he saved her life during W.W.II. Layzer presents himself in absolute truth. I did not get the impression that he was going to leach off her. He told her from the beginning he's poor and that he sent his ex-wife the dowry back even though she didn't want it. He wants her to understand that he will make a family.
Layzer is obsessed with the truth. He also knows he's an idiot and he tells Rachael the story about Lea Vora to show her that an odd couple can make a good pair. ( Lea Vora's husband was an idiot too) Rachael is drawn to him. She knows he's not there to cheat her. Simon realizes his dominate role with Rachael is in jeopardy and he begins finding ways to get Layzer out, without any money, of course.
I did enjoy it. Thank you for your time. Sincerely,


"Difficult People" (till 16 May)
The Works Theatre, 255 Elm Street, SOMERVILLE

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