By Barbara & Scott Siegel
Hot and Cold Running Critics
There are essentially two kinds of critics operating in our theater world these days, and they literally run hot and cold. The hot critics look for the emotional impact of a piece; they are more concerned with substance than with style. For them, it is irrelevant if a play is cutting edge. Far more important is whether the play is cutting to the quick. These critics want to be moved. The cold critics, on the other hand, wouldn’t be caught dead crying at a show; to get a good review from them, a play should be breaking new ground. If it’s sentimental or old-fashioned, talk about cutting edge: the knives come out.
Let’s take a for instance: the revival of Mercury Fur at the Signature Theater. The cold critics loved it. The futuristic piece by Philip Ridley, produced by the New Group and directed by Scott Elliott, is shocking in its laconic embrace of cruelty and violence. The key word in that last phrase isn’t cruelty or violence; the word to pay close attention to is “shocking.” The cold critics love to be shocked. (Hence, their critical praise for, among others, Adam Rapp, and the Amoralist Theater Company.)
To be mercifully brief, Mercury Fur’s bare bones plot has to do with the planning of a party in which a rich Wall Street player gets to live out his fantasy of killing someone in a very particular way. The play, to be fair, is not so simple and it is certainly ambitious in its description of our world gone haywire. But it is not a good play. Its derivative (think Of Mice and Men) and its plot turns are obvious (there is a gun ominously placed in a draw early on; only someone who had never been to the theater before would be fooled into thinking that it wouldn’t be used at the climax of the play).
The distinction that the cold critics have not made is that this is a superb production of a miserable play. The set design (Derek McLane), the lighting (Jeff Croiter), the sound design (M.L. Dogg), and the direction by the aforementioned Scott Elliott are all top-flight. The cast is excellent. They make this ugly little play look and feel like art.
This mistaking of the quality of the production for the piece, itself, happens with enormous frequency. Perhaps the most glaring example in recent years is War Horse, which was, of course, a huge hit at the Vivian Beaumont and won the Tony Award for Best Play. The production of the play was, indeed, sensational. It was Theater with a capital “T.” But the play, itself, was mediocre. It rightfully should have won all of the production awards, but it should not have been considered the year’s best play – not by the critics who lauded it nor by the Tony voters. But that’s what happens when style is rewarded over substance. Or when cold critics hold sway.
On the negative side, take a show like the recently closed It Shoulda Been You. Except for one modern plot turn, the piece was as old-fashioned as a pair of baggy pants, but it was loaded with comedy, wit, and warmth. Despite snide reviews from the cold critics, the play managed to last several months on the strength of its good word of mouth. But the critical dumping was just too much to overcome. The musical failed.
Sometimes, though, the hot critics and audiences do, indeed, overcome the power of the cold critics. Consider the success of Wicked.
In case you were wondering, we are not “cool” critics. Nor are we “hot.” Perhaps we are just warm.