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All the Views Fit to Print? Charles Isherwood on Whither the Playwrights (Plus a P.S.)

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Yesterday, Charles Isherwood, one of the two main theater critics at the New York Times, published an interesting essay about how it was time for playwrights who have abandoned the New York theater for TV to come back to the form they love, and write a play during the Writers Guild strike. Of course, one would have to be insane to disagree with this admirable exhortation, but, sadly, the source of the sentiments has - with all due respect - the merest hint of a credibility problem. I am able to say this without fear of it being written off as sour grapes, because generally he has been respectful of my work, even when critical. The same applies to Mr. Brantley, his fellow reviewer.

In his first paragraph, the following words stand out: "for all those writers lying on the couch in Hollywood perfecting their video-game scores, or weeding the backyards of their Laurel Canyon haciendas." He goes on to challenge them to name the author of a bit of dialogue from a certain classic American play. His supposition about what the writers are doing is faulty. They are on the picket lines. Many, who are currently unemployed, including a number of playwrights, are figuring out what to do about mortgages.

The line he challenges readers to identify is from Clifford Odet's play "Waiting for Lefty," a playwright he then writes off rather high-handedly as someone who became "hooked on the money " and who " continued to work in Hollywood for years, growing sour and self-disgusted."

In fact, Mr. Odets, far from being hooked on the money, had given so much of it away to the Group Theater, et al over the years, that he had very little choice but to turn to Hollywood. Particularly after he grew ever so slightly cold in the eyes of the fickle New York critics. He had children to bring up, and that cost money then as it does now. (Mr. Isherwood, whom I do not dislike at all , has, I note with a degree of idleness, no such obligations, as far as I know.) He goes on to suggest that making a living as TV writer is easy. This, I can assure him, is so laughable a notion, so entirely false, that I beg him to take my place for a week, when I am able to go back to Brothers & Sisters (where my skills as a playwright get in the way of the entire business, making me almost a joke to be kindly endured at ABC). I have never worked harder in my life than the two years spent getting Brothers & Sisters up and running.

And now to the slightly unpleasant part of this essay. Mr. Isherwood, as a critic, will never be noted for his generosity of spirit. He is not Harold Clurman. He tends to be waspish, dismissive, cool, and brittle - as a writer. He can be gratuitously insulting, and his reputation is marred by the general consensus that a good mind is not matched by a particularly big heart. There is a whiff of Grinch in his criticism. Mr. Brantley, more and more seems like a breathless writer of gossip and gush for fan mags, and his intelligence - which again is not in question - seems to fail when it comes down to the big picture. The Times critics present themselves as advocates for consumers, and not as advocates for the theater itself. Unlike Clurman, Ken Tynan, say, or even Frank Rich, who could be withering but always managed to let it be known that he was passionate for new voices, passionate for promise, and uncompromisingly rigorous, as he is as an op-ed writer on Sundays. Speaking of Sundays, the Times used to have a Sunday critic, but have dropped that, thereby handing a monopoly of opinion to Isherwood and Brantley.

I would submit that they do not necessarily add incentive to the already tendentious struggle that playwrights face in trying to make a life in the theater. Nor is that really their job. But there is a slight whiff of disconnection in Charles' essay.

I went to do my TV show so as to never have to worry about that problem again. I have never really worked on Broadway, and hopefully my income from TV (supplemented by whatever gains we make in the strike) will allow me to not look back, as soon as all my obligations are fulfilled. (Fuller disclosure - I owe ABC two new pilots.)

I have one new play in some sort of shape, and am working on another. My deployment under the palms has been temporary, because I am mindful of the agonies of Mr. Odets, and now I live, thank the lord, back in New York.

There are no other critics that matter in NY, other than those of the Times, and when Charles is gratuitously cutting and destructive, and when Brantley is gushy and woozy and adrift in a language derived from OK!, or Teen Beat, it is simply part of the climate now. There are very few playwrights I can think of who won't come back to NY because of the people who sway audiences by their pronouncements about their work.

As a critic, Isherwood is not without value, though many people are still scratching their heads over his almost Olympian celebration of an inscrutable monologue a few years ago at a Union Square theater. All things are connected. The regional theaters now live in a timorous queue, waiting for that which has been granted thumbs up in Gotham. Used to be much more likely that a playwright could go off to say, Seattle Rep for six months, and then come into Playwrights Horizons - now, you start at Playwrights, and if Charles or Ben doesn't respond favorably, the regional theaters do not, generally, come a-calling.

Not the critics' fault, but there it is.

Craig Wright, the creator of Dirty Sexy Money, who Isherwood mentions in his essay (he mentions me as well), is a playwright by nature, and so am I, stuck with it for life, no worries. But when the gentlemen who write for the New York Times pen this piece, which happens every seven years or so, like clockwork, wondering why so few playwrights are sticking around, it cannot be denied that they are part of the reason why. Fortitude depends on the writer. Stamina is up to the playwright too. Having a thick skin - essential.

But against aging and monochromatic audiences, subscribers who arrive bleary and distracted, and jaded New Yorkers- the serious young playwright could use less of what makes Mr. Isherwood a lesser critic than he could be: namely, coldness and a rather shocking lack of humility. It is a tough time to be a American playwright. Isherwood has, for instance, been critical of Richard Greenburg for being far too prolific, and has further, celebrated plays that last a mere 90 minutes, so one may go to dinner and be home in time for a ten PM TV show. This, I would suggest, is quite simply well-dressed urban Philistinism.

I suggest that the Times critics re-read Tynan, for instance, who was funny and could be ruthless, but was always on the side of the artist, and never innocently hid behind the pretense of being in the hire of the cultural wing of Consumer Reports. All things are connected, Charles (and Ben). Reading your essay yesterday, it occurred to me that you are suffering from that most modern of diseases - a soul-deep isolation, and a growing dislocation -- a place from which being a critic of the theater, is dangerous, given how communal the art is.

There is one last point I will make -- and it is about the Times itself. I believe that working there can be corrupting on some level, there is a safety in it, and a routine in it, and there is smugness too in the culture pages. Inoculate yourselves with sabbaticals. Maybe some time in Rome, or in LA, before coming back to the Grey Lady with a new understanding of some of the verities in the larger world.

PS - Friday. The heat within has died down somewhat, and I now regret the swipe at above mentioned monologue. Put it down to my ire at the timing of Charles' essay, in the midst of the strike -- and my lack of manners. I humbly apologize to the author of said monologue.
In THAT regard, I am an ass.