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A Crank of Critics

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Creatures kept in dark enclosed spaces develop all sorts of compensatory skills. Bats learn to find things in the dark with echolocation. Fish in caves lose their eyes and interpret the world through minute changes in pressure. Theatre critics, however, just get cranky. Repeated weekly exposure to the legitimate stage, although occasionally resulting in an exquisitely attuned creature like John Lahr, for the most part creates individuals who are primarily aware that a lot of the same mistakes are being made in a lot of different places. If you find yourself seated next to such a person, take advantage of a brightly lit midday scene and sneak a glance at the scribblings that flow from the pen next to you. Chances are they will consist largely of vague pleas to the gods of theatre, such as, "So help me, if he goes to that drawer and opens it and it contains only one item…." And, invariably, that's what happens. To the casual attendee, this is just the sort of thing one expects at the theatre. There's a fourth wall missing, people speak in highly unnatural tones, and drawers will always contain the one article a character needs and nothing more. To the critic, it's just one more reason to consider DeVry.

An exhaustive scientific survey, by which is meant a wheedling email sent to various cultural arbiters, resulted in a torrent of suggested additions to this paltry list. These can be loosely categorized as: Things in the Lobby, Things in the House, and Things on the Stage. The first category extends to the street, as it's not unheard of to arrive at our more casual theatres and find the door shut and locked. The datebook is checked, everything seems to be in order, what gives? About then, in the experience of Les Spindle (Back Stage West, Frontiers), "Someone from the theatre slowly strolls up the street with a Taco Bell bag in hand and a cellphone glued to his ear." Apologies and explanations are rare, though a look of mild surprise is not.

Once in the lobby, one might encounter people either obviously overdressed or in need of additional costume items. Occasionally this might be a stab at making the experience more organic by having the show begin at the door. Often, though, it's just actors visiting friends before the show. It's the rich, practiced laughter that gives them away every time. And so we stumble past the box office—an arena that got just one negative review from a critic who showed up with a friend to review a show and was told she'd have to pay for the friend's seat. Fortunately she was one of the few critics with a day job that pays well, so it was a minor inconvenience. Still, chances are that, if a critic is able to dig up a date at all, they will most likely not have three dollars between them. Critics attend the theatre as a simulacrum of a social life, as the real thing involves purchased tickets and, sometimes, purchased food. The program practically counts as the shared reading in a very small book club.

Now comes the wait. The show is generally scheduled to start at 8, which means 8:10, or 8:20 if it's a big theatre on an opening night involving celebrities and mad preshow socializing. Rob Kendt (Los Angeles Times, Downtown News) finds any time after 8:10 to be too late and wonders, "If more theatres turned away latecomers, rather than letting them tromp in throughout the play's first half hour, perhaps L.A. theatregoers would become trained to be on time." Kendt longs wistfully for the more rigorous environment of Ashland, Ore., "where people are specifically and avidly there to see theatre, [and] you can literally set your watch by the curtain time." The most dispiriting is the 60-minute show that begins a half hour late. What could be going on back there? The answer became obvious once when I found myself and one other critic in attendance as the clock passed 8:15. At 8:40 a dozen people walked in together, all apparently friends of the sole performer in the piece. Apparently cellphone minutes were being burned up while the two of us had been sitting, making increasingly spotty small talk.

We now come to the No. 1 complaint among the hardened theatregoers, and that's the opening-night claque. Friends and families are one thing—even a bit of judicious papering is understandable—but there seems to be a niche audience member who knows the show as well, if not better than, the performers. Melinda Schupmann (Showmag.com, Back Stage West), one of the gentlest souls to ever assay a theatrical production, admits, "I loathe the audience plant who chortles, hee-haws, guffaws, titters, or brays in my ear, often slightly ahead of the joke, which gives one pause." Madeleine Shaner (Back Stage West, Park La Brea News/Beverly Press), in her piece "Watch the Play I Pray Thee," quotes a chef du claque of the old school who reported to a major actress, "At the first night, I led the attack myself 33 times. We developed three acclamations, four hysterias, two portions of frisson, four encores of applause, and two interminable explosions." Enough.

A similar pleasure can be found in the solicitous attentions of the opening night publicist. One intrepid critic, in his younger and more trusting days, received not only the lavish courtesies of the rather handsome publicist during the show but also three follow-up calls, one of which included an invitation to see the show again any time as "the personal guest" of the publicist. Thrilled? Boy, was I. I mean he. Alas, all the rakish fellow was looking for was continued positive attention to a dog of a show that still counts among the three worst I've ever seen. And this was quite some time ago.

Recurring transgressions during the course of any show run heavily toward the prop department. In addition to the miracle drawer—and often the miracle refrigerator—there's the grocery bag. It's bad enough when a character in Georgia walks in with a Ralphs bag, but Ralphs at least seems like a national chain if you're from here and stay close to home. It's when the Trader Joe's bag makes in appearance in Kansas, or the SoCal-specific Bristol Farms bag makes an appearance in Manhattan, that I despair. One production required bags from the Winn-Dixie chain, so some industrious sort had hand-lettered it onto a plain brown bag. It was only my native lack of industry that kept me from having relatives in the Southeast ship me a box of bags so I could make a gift to the company.

Another seemingly simple situation is the telephone. The ring often issues 30 feet from the phone. It's a big, old-style dial phone, and it twitters. The ring comes from the booth. I turned to sound god John Zalewski, who can individualize cricket chirps, and he admits that it's not his MO to hard-wire the phone. He'll put the ring on tape and put the speaker in the vicinity of the phone, but the trick is in the level. As long as the level is right, it'll tend to sound like the real thing, particularly cellphones, which announce themselves in that hard-to-locate high beep. Wiring the telephone involves a box that costs a bit, hence its rarity in smaller theatres. The ambitious can do this in-house, though, and directions can be found at www.techlib.com/electronics/telephone.html. You needn't thank me for the information, but someday I'll be quietly thanking you.

Now we get to the really little things, the things one notices only after seeing them dozens of times and realizes it's not just a random oversight. Correspondence can be tricky. In a smaller theatre it's clear to the audience when an actor opens a letter that the page is perfectly blank. It's also clear when there's no stamp or postmark on the envelope, or no address. And if there's a clock on the wall facing the audience, could it work? Critic Sharon Perlmutter (Talkinbroadway.com) recently went to one of the area's more reputable, and larger, theatres only to become fixated on the timepiece that remained obdurately fixed. "The distraction value of the non-functioning clock ruined what was otherwise an excellent set," she said. God, or your personal understanding of a higher power, is in the details.

Lest it appear that it's nothing but whining and caviling from fifth row center, Dave DePino (Showmag.com, Park La Brea News/Beverly Press) mentions that, "A thing that used to be the biggest problem for me was 'gratuitous nudity,' but the older I get, the more I find myself to be tolerant, observant, and somewhat grateful." To which I can only add my heartfelt endorsement and a polite request to producers that, in such situations, our seats be in the most, ahem, advantageous part of the house. BSW

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