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The Year of Male-Chauvinist Thinking

Why are there no great woman theater critics?
Maybe it’s the sudden spring budding of feminist art shows (here, here and here) that has gotten my dried-up women’s lib juices flowing again: I can’t help thinking that the dearth of female Broadway theater critics has something to do with the dismissive reception from several major reviewers for Joan Didion‘s maiden voyage (why “maiden”?) as a playwright, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
There was no ambivalence in the response of the audience member waiting ahead of me in the parking garage after the show Saturday night. “Wasn’t that wonderful?” she gushed upon seeing Vanessa Redgrave on my program cover. “I never saw an audience that quiet!”
I had already commented to my husband that the audience had been so rapt that there was nary a cough, rustle or whisper. This intense engagement was in sharp contrast to the disengagement of the critics, several of whom singled out for censure the very device that had immediately drawn us in as co-conspirators: Redgrave’s direct address to us through the fourth wall, letting us know that we were to be more than passive participants in the retelling of these life-shattering events. I found this a generous gesture, not an annoying contrivance.
The audience’s absorption was at least equally due to Redgrave’s peerless performance as to Didion’s harrowing story. (CultureGrrl Tip: If you’re sitting far back, as I was, BRING BINOCULARS!)
Granted, it is a flawed play, as how could it not be—a first stab at stage drama by a novelist/journalist/screenwriter. I thought the second half, concerned more with Didion’s daughter than her husband, was not only less powerful but also less assuredly performed by Redgrave. To me it seemed as if the part of the story that had not been in the original source material (Didion’s best-selling book) might have undergone significant rewrites during rehearsal and had not yet been adequately polished by the writer nor totally absorbed by the actress.
I also agree with detractors who suggested that the ending—a recitation of lessons learned—had an artificial, tacked-on feel, as if someone had told Didion that she needed to correct her book’s unsatisfying lack of resolution (which had also bothered me, when I read it). Her coming to terms with what happened is still a work in progress.
Still, I suspect that many women, myself included, found much to identify with in a protagonist who can’t help feeling that she’s the the smartest person in the room (even when she’s not—as in a roomful of medical practitioners). She can’t lose the habit of trying to get through every problem with the method that has always served her best—a combination of intelligence, book learning and force of will. But this is the one problem that cannot be addressed, let alone solved, by any of those powers—and that’s Didion’s problem.
Although male theater critics will hotly disagree, I suspect that some of their reactions to Didion (Ben Brantley’s mixed review excluded) is rooted in the ingrained response of men who feel put off by strong women. Qualities that make a man appear commanding and knowledgeable make a woman, in many male eyes, come off as an irritating, controlling know-it-all. (And don’t I know it!)
At the end of the intense evening, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Didion may not have always been a “cool customer,” but there is no bathos in her retelling. Wary about “the question of self-pity,” she is the insightfully self-analytical survivor, even when her heart is breaking.
(NOTE: A YouTube video of Didion and Redgrave discussing the play, posted on ArtsJournal today, is here.)

an ArtsJournal blog