by Robert Brustein
One asset of Robert Brustein's 15th book is that the referenced productions are of very recent vintage, so for those who saw them, there's freshness to his prose. For those who didn't, his insight, detail, and ever-pithy humor allow readers a hint of what they missed.
Most notable are his views on specific actors' performances. While dismissing Jonathan Miller's production of King Lear at Lincoln Center Theater as artful but wrong-headed, he lauds Christopher Plummer's intensity: "Lear delivers the line 'Oh Fool, I shall go mad' in six sharp syllables, punctuating them with hammered blows on the Fool's chest." Fearlessly, too, he attacks other critics' tastes. With a simple declarative statement, he decries how Ben Brantley, the New York Times' chief drama critic, "anointed" Simon Russell Beale "England's greatest living actor": "I must express some puzzlement over his exalted place in the theatrical pantheon."
Brustein certainly knows that pantheon well. When he approaches the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy, he writes with the verve of someone seeing the 1959 tuner for the first time; but as someone born in 1927, he also acknowledges his frame of reference for the original production. (Of Gypsy Rose Lee, he writes, "Lying about my age, I was privileged to see this sophisticated, languorous stripper perform at Minsky's when I was 14.")
Despite nearly 50 years as a critic-practitioner, Brustein possesses an eagerness to fantasize, intellectualize, and rationalize the theatre that remains undimmed. Reading this volume is like watching an athlete affirm his prowess—whether directing brickbats at Bush-era politics ("George W. Bush might do well to read Lear's speech about his neglect of the poor") or crafting a frank, thoughtful obituary of Arthur Miller. When he observes that Sara Ramirez, then in Monty Python's Spamalot, possesses a "talent for caricaturing virtually every loudmouth who ever belted along the Great White Way," no insult may be intuited. Rather, it's Brustein's way of taking the long view of short-term history.
Yale University Press, 2006, 304 pages, hardcover, $38.
Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs