Monday, March 7, 2011

Departing from the formula

I direct your attention to a fine "critiquing the critics" post over at dotCommonweal -- written by my colleague Paul Moses, who took issue with Ben Brantley's review of That Championship Season. Paul hasn't seen the production under review, and neither have I, but I think he's right to be surprised by Brantley's attack on the play itself. It's out of character for Brantley to strike this edgier-than-thou pose. I expect this sort of "I am not impressed by your award-winning play" sniffing from Isherwood (see here, for example), but Brantley? And reviewing a play with a bunch of movie stars in it? No women, sure, but still. Very odd.

I certainly won't dispute the observation that That Championship Season is marked by "formal old-fashionedness," nor that it "appears to have been assembled according to the rule book of Playwriting 101, 1952 edition." But I would suggest that this is by design. I'll just repeat what I said in my comment over at dotComm:
I often find that Brantley will make what strikes me as a keen observation, and then go on to draw exactly the opposite conclusion from it. This is a perfect example:
Though littered with four-letter words, “Season” has a clean, mechanical structure in which revelations arrive like well-run trains at a station. Theatergoers who felt hip enough to be lambasted for being middle-class sell-outs but not hip enough for the experimental ambiguities of an Albee play could sit back and enjoy American traditionalism being attacked in the traditional style to which they were accustomed.
He goes on to refer to the play’s “perverse comfort factor.” To me, what distinguishes the play is its discomfort factor — the combination of the old-fashioned, disciplined structure with increasingly unsettling revelations about American values, small-town pieties, and human nature. That’s exactly what he puts his finger on in the quote above, except that he gets the analysis backward. It seems to me the play is designed to let you get comfortable and then make you squirm.

Also: I haven’t seen this production, but I know the play well, and in my opinion this review contains unnecessary plot-spoilers. I guess Brantley figured no one who read it would want to see the show, so he might as well go ahead and ruin it?

Seriously: if you plan to see That Championship Season and you never have before, don't read Brantley's review. I hope to see it myself, so I'll stop there. Hey, maybe this will make tickets easier to come by?

(By the way, dotCommonweal is always a good place to look for me when things are quiet here! Check out what I've been posting lately.)

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