06/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Pulitzer Debacle?

Charles McNulty, drama critic for The Los Angeles Times and chairman of this year's Pulitzer Prize Jury for drama, wrote a blistering piece this week challenging the decision of the Pulitzer Committee to ignore the nominations of the Pulitzer Jury in awarding the prize for drama to the Broadway musical Next to Normal over three more compelling works from regional theaters. Decrying the provincialism of the New York-based Pulitzer Committee, McNulty writes: "In an era in which important new dramatic works rarely get their start in New York, the board's geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away is especially disheartening."

The Jury nominees, writes McNulty, " represent the new guard of American playwriting. And their authors -- diverse in background and courageous in style -- are discovering fresh ways of connecting politics and poetry onstage." The Pulitzers winners, on the other hand, pale in comparison. "Historically, the Pulitzer for drama has never been at the forefront of theatrical breakthroughs."

A big part of the problem, in McNulty's view, is the Pulitzer Committee's "inability to see that the quality of a play has less to do with content than how that content is dramatically expressed." In other words -- as most theater critics learn very quickly -- a flashy production can often hide the defects in a less than stellar script. Lots of sizzle and very little steak doesn't work for most people, except perhaps the Pulitzer Committee.

This should come as no surprise, since the eighteen members of the Committee are primarily journalists and academics, including notables like columnist Thomas Friedman, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger and Wall Street Journal editor Paul Gigot. All bright, accomplished men and women, but certainly not experienced in judging artistic merit, particularly in the challenging arena of contemporary theater.

Critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times responded to the McNulty attack, writing that he was "mystified" by McNulty's indignation. Pulitzer Prizes, argues Brantley, have never gone to the "finest work" of American dramatists. "The Pulitzer standard," writes Brantley, "seems to be that the play be like a painting you would feel comfortable having on your living room wall. A splash of topicality is always welcome, but only if it is leavened by sentimentality and structural tidiness."

Fair point. But I wonder how many of the distinguished journalists on the Pulitzer Committee would vote for journalism prizes that made readers "feel comfortable" or had "a splash of topicality." Certainly the investigative and feature pieces honored by the Committee are held up as examples of penetrating, even crusading, journalism. Why should drama be held to a different, more "comfortable" standard?

More distressing - especially in light of McNulty's point about the distinction that must be made between a production and the underlying literary piece - is the report in The New York Times that several members of the Pulitzer Committee attended a performance of Next to Normal the night before final voting began. Since Committee members had presumably not seen the productions of the Jury's nominees, it would seem that a blatantly unfair comparison was being made between the production of one, non-nominated show and the scripts of nominated shows. All this by Committee members who likely have precious little experience reading theater scripts. What would you find more entertaining - a fully realized Broadway production or three theater scripts? Clearly an unfair comparison.

Rather than simply dismissing the Pulitzers as old-fashioned or irrelevant, isn't it worth a further discussion of how the Committee goes about making its choices - especially when it ignores the nominees of its own Jury and then slips off the night before the voting to see an non-nominated Broadway musical? In a court of law, that kind of breach of due process would likely result in a mistrial. Isn't it time to call for a Pulitzer mistrial?