NEW YORK, NY.-
The year that just ended was a difficult one for people who make theater, as they faced economic, aesthetic and medical challenges. In a smaller way it was therefore a strange year for those of us who write about and review their work. Not until late summer 2020 and then more fully in the fall did we see live plays and musicals, and enjoy the pleasures that come with doing so: not just the communal experience in the theater but also the shared reflection afterward.
For us Jesse Green, the chief theater critic, and Maya Phillips, a critic at large that shared reflection often included the gift of disagreement. And so, on the last day of 2021, we met, in cyberspace, to talk about what each of us liked most over the last several months, what we disliked most and how a bit of (respectful!) head-butting can expand our understanding of both. Below, edited excerpts from the conversation.
JESSE GREEN: The return of live theater, however precarious, was a great thing for both of us as critics, of course, but also as lovers of plays and musicals. There was a lot to see, and a lot we liked.
MAYA PHILLIPS: It was strange, though, to return to crowded theaters after being holed up in our apartments for so long. And it felt overwhelming in a good way, but still overwhelming to dive right back into a full fall season. But, yes, it was great to be back. What stood out to you?
GREEN: I found myself gravitating, somewhat unexpectedly, to the extremes of experience, rather than the subtle middle ground I often find so amenable. I went for big comedy and sensation, as in the first live show I saw, Merry Wives, Jocelyn Biohs Shakespeare revamp for the Public Theater in Central Park. To share belly laughs with hundreds of people again was a joy. I felt that way again, indoors, with Six.
PHILLIPS: I agree. I loved the color of Merry Wives in every respect the bright costumes, the flashy ending, the vibrant performances and, of course, that cast of people of color. Six was the epitome of the grand spectacle that Broadway can be in all the best ways. And dont forget Trouble in Mind. That was one of my favorites, and I thought the comedy worked so well in that production.
This should come as no surprise to you, but Im more of a tragedy girl myself. What appealed to you on the more somber side of things?
GREEN: Funny you should mention Trouble in Mind, which I responded to both as a comedy (which it is, formally) and as a tragedy (which it is, sociologically). Thats part of what made Alice Childress play, which was supposed to have its Broadway premiere in 1957, so smashing in 2021: It finds a way to tell a story about the waste of Black talent within the warm, familiar confines of a backstage setting. But I suspect your penchant for tragedy is more in the classic vein and there, I think we would want to talk about Pass Over.
PHILLIPS: Im an equal opportunity lover of all forms of tragedy, but yes, my preferred brand of comedy is laced with the kind of biting sociological satire and subtly tragic moments that Childress offers in Trouble in Mind.
When I think about Pass Over, the explicit moments of tragedy arent what stand out. In fact, those moments of physical and emotional and verbal violence the ending in particular didnt always work for me. The most fascinating aspects, and the most tragic, were the ways the two Black characters related to each other, within this framework that the playwright, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, adopted from Becketts Waiting for Godot. Its the same kind of nihilistic view that Beckett had, with similar linguistic play, but its so much more meaningful because its used to reveal how race is its own trap, a purgatory, in America. But then it also contains humor, like Trouble in Mind.
GREEN: Inadvertently but appropriately, purgatory was a frequent theme as live theater ventured out this fall. Another show that dramatized it and sang about it, too was the Roundabout Theater Companys revival of Caroline, or Change, in which the title character, a Black woman in Louisiana, spends most of her working life in the subterranean laundry room of a Jewish family. And in Martyna Majoks Sanctuary City, the limbo of being Dreamers the children of undocumented immigrants in the United States becomes not just a political problem but an emotional one, as two teenagers, denied a place in the country, try to find a place for themselves in each other. With a few reservations, I loved both those shows, and I think you did too.
PHILLIPS: Yes, both were fantastic, and Id also add Sylvia Khourys brutal Selling Kabul, at Playwrights Horizons, to that category of shows featuring characters trapped in a kind of political limbo. Though, in that case, its also literal, because the whole play takes place in one small apartment, and one of the characters is unable to leave. But I want to get to some of the things we disagree on, because I feel as if despite our different preferences were often on the same page when it comes to the criticism. The fall had a lot of shows we didnt see eye to eye on!
GREEN: I guess that brings us to Clydes by Lynn Nottage another purgatory play. This time the purgatory is a truck stop sandwich shop run by a diabolical character (played by Uzo Aduba) and staffed by former prisoners who have almost no way back into society. And yet, somehow, its a comedy.
PHILLIPS: A comedy that I didnt find funny! I love Lynn Nottage, but Ive noticed Ive had problems with her comedies. And this one in particular I found flimsy. To use the already heavy-handed sandwich metaphor, Id say there wasnt enough meat to it, despite the performances, which I liked. But I also wished that Aduba had more to do; it was great watching a Black woman be this ridiculously arch villain, but that character, and the whole theme of redemption and connection through the creative art of sandwich-making, felt one-note to me.
GREEN: Comedy is more personal than tragedy. I laughed and laughed no doubt in part because of the performances but also for the very reason you were disappointed: It didnt try to explain itself. Also, it gave us characters, most of them Black and Latino, without a white filter, which for me was a pleasure and a relief. Also a pleasure and a relief: The characters (spoiler alert) escaped their purgatory. Which is not to say I dont understand your criticisms; I find them useful because one person can only absorb one idea of a play at a time. I wonder if you feel the same way, or whether its just annoying when we disagree?
PHILLIPS: What you say about comedy being more personal is exactly right. I had issues with the allegory to begin with, and because its so prevalent, I was looking for other dimensions or nuances to latch onto but was just left with the element of the play the main element that I found unappealing.
But I never find our disagreements annoying! At first I found them unsettling. Im not sure if you still get the anxiety I do that youve missed something that your fellow critics havent, and that must be the root of the disagreement, that youre just wrong. Now I find our disagreements informative. Like with your review of Clydes, you pointed out the same problems I had with it, but while those issues couldnt redeem the show for me, for you there was more to it. Whats most important to me there was that we saw the same things and just had different responses.
GREEN: I like that formulation, and wish it were more commonly held. But its understandable that people want critics to love what they love; critics feel the same way! I do feel scarily out on a limb when I dislike something so many people, including my colleagues, like. That was most painfully the case with the new gender-switched revival of Company, because I spent a lot of the running time trying to convince myself that I was enjoying it when in fact, as I had to accept when I got home, I wasnt.
PHILLIPS: That is difficult! I admire that you stuck to your guns there, especially because I think a lot of people went in expecting to enjoy it because of the cast, because of the reputation of the show, and of course because Stephen Sondheim died this fall. With Company, you had context I didnt have going in. Id heard the songs and knew the story, but this was my first time seeing the show. And yet again, I agreed with your points, especially about the elaborate set overwhelming the content, but found the gender swap, with some small exceptions, more interesting and relevant.
There were definitely some awkward lyric changes, but I thought the way the dialogue was changed and how the characters relationships with a now-female Bobbie changed created fresh tension that worked. And I found it refreshing to see a female lead who might be passive and aloof, yes, but is able to own that and the fact that shes single in a way that a man can in society. Its much more rare to see that kind of female character, and I loved Katrina Lenks performance.
GREEN: Did you feel that way about Victoria Clark in Kimberly Akimbo, the new musical by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire about a teenager (played by Clark) who, because of a rare disease, looks like shes in her 60s? I gave it (and her) a rave review but you told me you werent convinced.
PHILLIPS: Yes, I enjoyed Clarks performance but had a similar experience to the one you had at Company during this show I sat there wanting to enjoy it but had to admit to myself that it just wasnt clicking for me. I admired what it was trying to do, and I welcome bonkers new musicals like this one, but I thought the book just needed a lot more work. The funny but random scheming aunt, who takes up so much room in the show; the awkwardly incorporated student chorus; Kimberlys relationship with her parents; her relationship with her own disease there were so many places where I felt the show could have cut or expanded and refocused itself while still maintaining its quirkiness. And to be honest, the songs werent very memorable to me.
GREEN: Oh, that stabs me in the heart! But thats what it means to accept that theater, like all experience, is subjective, and therefore so is criticism. Youre going to hurt sometimes. People have told me most recently at a funeral! that they dislike my reviews because theyre so mean. When I engage those people further, it often turns out that its not the supposed meanness but the disagreement itself that makes them angry. Some people just cant be happy unless everyone loves Diana, the Musical and Flying Over Sunset, to name two shows I didnt and you didnt, either. Do you get that?
PHILLIPS: I do get that! But more so on Twitter, with random internet trolls, and more so with fandoms other than theater. I often am seen as a curmudgeon or contrarian by my family and friends, but then when they read my reviews they always tell me Im fair. Sometimes it is fun to be the one with the controversial opinion. But Im interested in discourse; disagreement is just part of the job, and we need it. Were not the same people with the same experiences. Our differences of opinion reveal the differences in our experiences, which in turn highlight different dimensions of what were critiquing. As long as that criticism is thoughtfully considered and argued, its all useful.
GREEN: I grew up arguing with my family about everything we saw. In a way, thats how you learn that other people exist as much as you do, and how you come to understand what you experience more fully. In that sense, unexpected or outré or at least strongly worded positions are necessary. Even when they are quite negative they can be seen, I hope, as joyful contributions to the mutual project as Company has it of being alive.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times