A critic's 2012 resolutions

January 4, 2012

Three days into 2012 so it's time for some New Year's resolutions. Sure, I know the world is coming to an end next December but, after 40 years as a theater critic, better late than never, right?

So, what sort of resolutions does a theater critic make? Well, I have four of them for 2012.

Number One, I resolve not to see any more bad shows. Two, I resolve to be generous and fair-minded in all my reviews. Three, I resolve to be honest.

OK, Resolution One is the tough one. It's not like cutting back on chocolate or losing 10 pounds, because I don't know whether or not a show is bad until I've seen it, or at least until I'm in the middle of seeing it and saying to myself, "Dear God, get me out of here! Please, just let me spend the next two hours listening to chalk scratching on a blackboard!" In 2011 I saw the single worst show of the year in January. At least it all was uphill from there. I fear Resolution One will be broken before I can put it into effect, which is the natural order of things when it comes to the life of theater critic.

Resolution Two is the easy one, because I already am famously generous and fair-minded in all my reviews. Indeed, I'm frequently called "a living saint" by those in the show biz. OK, I hear you: "Jonathan, Jonathan! What about Number Three? C'mon, be honest." All right, they don't call me a living saint but they sometimes want to burn me at the stake or crucify me upside down, or at least tie me up and force me to watch Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood, again.

In truth, I actually do strive to be fair-minded and balanced when I critique a production. Like life itself, theater rarely is all black or all white, but generally is a brighter or duller shade of gray. My job is to point out both the highs and lows and come to a conclusion as to which predominate and then attempt to explain why I think so, perhaps displaying some of my erudition (at least about theater) in the process. Those of you who read my reviews or listen to them are the judges as to whether or not I'm successful. Being clever and trashing a production or an actor is easy and fun ("And then I took out her heart and stomped on it," we critics used to joke to each other) but not very productive. In time it will destroy one's soul, kinda' like the "Avada Kedavra" killing curse in Harry Potter. If you dislike so much of what you see and hear in theater, ya' shouldn't be in the reviewing game at all.

As for Resolution Three, it obviously applies, or should apply, to far more than theater criticism alone. As I speedily progress through Late Middle Age on the inevitable march towards Medicare and Social Security (which may not be inevitable for the next generation but probably still are for Us Boomers), I must decide if the inevitable compromises with life and life choices are dishonest in ways which are immoral or unethical. In other words, are they black or white or some shade of gray? Similarly, what and how I write is subject to my own editorial judgment before it ever goes to my editors. When should I write "The show was sunk by Actor X, who was totally out of her depth in the title role" and when should I write "The role was an ambitious stretch for Actor X who was not fully up to its demands"? Is one less honest than the other? You tell me.

Oh, I almost forgot Resolution Four: I resolve that for another 12 months, I will not use the words dazzling, stupendous, brassy, sensational, best-ever or must-see in any review I deliver on air or in print. If I must rely on superlatives to convey my admiration--or lack of admiration--then I'm not doing my job well. This usually makes me the least-quoted major theater critic in Chicago, but perhaps a tick more thoughtful because of it. In my own mind, it makes me a bit more honest, too. But that could be pure illusion on my part. After all, I still think I look like Gary Cooper.

Happy New Year. And don't worry: I will NOT let the world end next December, no matter how bad the theater season has been.