Falls calls out WBEZ critic.

February 25, 2009

Well, the good news is, someone's listening.

Ordinarily, communication between theater professionals and theater critics is indirect: theater people communicate by putting their work before the public, and theater critics assess that work, also in public. If a theater professional feels s/he's been unfairly treated by a critic, the time-honored approach is an irate letter to the editor(s), which serves a dual purpose: giving the theater person a second chance to communicate the message that was supposed to be issuing from the stage, and embarrassing the critic in front of his/her boss.

What's highly unusual is for a theater professional to call a critic at home to berate him/her for an unfavorable review; yet that's what happened in response to my review of Desire Under The Elms at the Goodman Theatre. Two or three days after our "Dueling Critics" segment aired, I received a call from director Robert Falls asking to discuss my response to his work. When I returned the call, Mr. Falls noted this was only the second time he'd heard the Dueling Critics: the first was our review of his production of King Lear, which I also panned.

desire

He began by asserting that I was "not a theater critic at all, but just a radio personality," purporting to be surprised that I'd also spent seven years reviewing for the Reader. He offered a critique of my "persona" on the Dueling Critics segment: "I understand you and Jonathan have your roles; he's the intellectual and you're the ignoramus, Joanne Theatergoer, I-don't-know-anything-about-theater-but-I-know-what-I-like." He then characterized certain of my comments as "stupid" while observing more generally that the review consisted entirely of "not very funny one-liners" and was "dismissive of the work of people who've thought about this for years."

I didn't argue, on the theory that I'd already had the chance to express my opinion about the show. I agreed that the Dueling Critics format tends to produce snappy comments rather than nuanced analysis, and noted that we'd be glad to have twice as much time to discuss the works we consider. ("I'll write a letter in support of that," said Mr. Falls.) Finally, I pointed out that he might feel differently if he'd heard our rave review of his production of A Doll's House, and mentioned my admiration for his production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, which made me understand the play for the first time. As it is written: "A soft answer turneth away wrath."

But the encounter was unpleasant and intimidating, as it was clearly intended to be. Personal confrontations with critics are considered unprofessional because they always backfire: "Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel." But they're also frowned upon because they put personal dynamics, and unwonted personal concerns, in the way of professional judgment. Who wouldn't be inclined to pull her punches a bit, just to avoid a call like that in the future?

The call did make me think again about my approach to reviewing, though probably not with the results Mr. Falls hoped for. I bring a lot of emotional energy to criticism: if I love a show, I LOVE it and I'm dying to tell you why. And if a show disappoints, I'm not just indifferent: I'm furious. If it's a new or small company, I'll cut them some slack, though I'll never recommend a show I don't like. But when it's a piece done at the city's marquee theater and directed by someone whose work I've admired for 30 years, and when that work turns out to be lazy or sloppy or thoughtless or a triumph of form over content, I don't just mildly object: I'm enraged. I'm sorry if Mr. Falls finds that tough to take; but watching an accomplished director resort to shabby tricks produces in me the same disappointment and disgust baseball fans must feel watching the latest non-denial apology from Alex Rodriguez.

It does happen to be my "persona" to express this disappointment and rage with all the wit of which I'm capable. I'm not surprised this doesn't amuse its targets; it's not intended to. It's intended to provide our listeners -- people who might or might not spend $45 a ticket to see this production -- with an answer to the question whether they'll get their money's worth.

In other words: I don't work for Mr. Falls, or any other member of the Chicago theater community. I make every effort to be fair to the artists I review, but my primary obligation is to the audience members who may spend time, attention and money on their work. If any of them would like to call me at home, they're more than welcome.

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