Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Cut Slack

Here's another reason why a critic might be inclined to go easy on a theater: guilt. In the case of today's review, there's a company in the Philadelphia suburbs I feel like I've been hammering just about every time I visit. Sometimes it's their choice of play, others it's the level of performance or direction, but lately it seems that every time I go, this lovely little house situated inside an old grist mill ends up with a spanking that pains us both. 

I don't believe in critical boosterism, nor do I think it's my job to keep theaters in business, but there comes a point when a critic has to ask herself if perhaps the problem is a difference in taste, rather than simply a dearth of quality. So no, this wasn't the best Sherlock Holmes I've ever seen, and though it was an uneven production, it was good enough to deliver at least part of the experience I wanted when I left the house that evening. This time, rather than chastising the company for my perception of its comfort with mediocrity, I sat back and accepted it for what it was: a suburban theater with pretty conventional tastes. And that night I had a pretty good time.

This doesn't mean I'll always cut them slack; after all, I'm worried about my credibility, not theirs. But still, it's a lesson in context, which is important for everyone to remember, whether reading or writing a review. When McCarter stumbles--as I believe they did in their latest production--it's one thing. But judging a small local house by the same standard is another. They don't get a pass, of course, because that would be irresponsible on my part, but they do get credit for knowing what their audience wants when they leave the house, even if it might not be exactly what I'm looking for.

P.S., the first line contains a typo. It should read, "our collective anxiety," not "collection anxiety." And no one deserves slack for letting that slide.
October 21, 2008 10:26 AM | | Comments (5)


"National heft" has nothing to do with the quality of the work, as I hope you know. It does have something to do with how conspicuously and energetically a paper features theatre in its coverage.

A few years back, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE ran a five-part series on a medium-sized theatre called Famous Door putting up a production. That the TRIB would allot that much space to a company sent a signal to the readership that the paper took indigenous Chicago theatre very seriously. I can't think of a paper in another town that would run a five-part series on a mid-size theatre. A few years back, the NY TIMES ran a two-part feature on the Public Theatre, but that's hardly the same thing.

Glad to hear about Nutter. If you could get it published, it might be useful to study what happened in Chi and put up a piece on how that town went from a place that was mocked in THE NEW YORKER as a "second city" (which is where the improv troupe got its name, by the way) to being the regional theatre capital of America. There might be some lessons worth extrapolating that some folks might find useful. Christiansen's book A THEATRE OF OUR OWN might be a good place to start. And Christiansen himself is very easy to talk to.

I'll try not to be hurt by the "mustered a critic with national heft" comment, and am absolutely part of the choir that so much of Philly theater is so good. It seems that new play fever has been rising here recently, with a few shows going Off-Broadway and some others making the regional rounds (I, for one, plan to see Michael Hollinger's Opus at Florida Studio Theatre in December), so we're definitely on the right track.

Philly's new mayor, Michael Nutter, seems thus far very much on board with the arts, picking up the ball John Street dropped when it was handed to him by Ed Rendell. He's just re-opened the Mayor's Office of Arts and Culture, renaming it the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, which is just the sort of official move that makes those of us involved in that economy very, very happy.

The INQUIRER can't quite kill a show, but it can't really make one either. It's a shame that Philadelphia hasn't mustered a critic with national heft yet because a lot of Philly theatre is damn good. With proper support, Philly could follow the path Chicago blazed as a lab for new stuff that goes national.

But Chicago's local press (particularly the much-missed Richard Christiansen) knew how to get its readers excited about the local theatre scene. Half the reason for the Chicago theatre boom was the support and enthusiasm of the local media. It also helps that, whatever his other sins, the mayor and his wife are theatre enthusiasts. The mayor personally had a hand in setting up the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Lookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare in new facilities after they'd proved their worth to the community. He understoof that a vital Chicago theatre translated into increased tourism, convention business, a perception of Chicago as a cultural center, and a happier, more livable city.

These days, when you can get any movie you want from NetFlix, hear any radio you want through your computer, and get your hands on almost any book either digitally or through cheap second-hand sources online, what distinguishes one city from another is what must be experienced in person. Yes, one aspect of this is the architecture and layout of a city and the history associated with it that people want to encounter. The other side is its live performance. OK, sports is part of this, of course. But surveys have established that the audience for live arts is competitive in size with sports. Does the mayor of Philly know this? Does the mayor actively support theatre and dance and music? (I ask because I truly don't know.)

Not sure if the Inquirer can kill a show, but as the sole reviewing daily, it's probably also the most influential review in the area. I know that's very old media thinking, but at least for now, I believe that's true, particularly since--even if you Google us--we've still got that patina of official credibility. I would imagine that if, as in London, there were several dueling dailies offering up reviews, the sense of personal responsibility would be very different, and of course that diffusion of professional opinion better for the theater scene as a whole. Of course there are also the weeklies and emerging online publications, but somehow we're still perched (tenuously) atop the critical food chain.

However, I do think that as a critic it's important to be up-front about your biases so that at the very least, a reader knows when they can trust you and when they are likely to disagree with your point of view.

Thanks for the comment.

Wendy, really interesting post. I guess all critics have their blind spots and easily-pressed buttons, and have to learn to recognise them. I find that I'm more likely to give credit to an unsuccessful show with ambitions than to one which has a more modest aim. But your Sherlock review reads very fairly - you're judging it pretty squarely on its good-night-out goals, and making it clear there might be a wider dramatic world out there.

I wonder if the relation a critic has with the artistic community is different depending on where you're writing from? Certainly in London there are so many critics, none of whom can really make-or-break a show, that there's generally a range of opinion. I may worry about being mean or lenient on a personal level, but I rarely get a sense that anything I write has any effect on ticket sales. Is Philadelphia similar?

It's rare to approach a show without any preconceptions, and difficult sometimes not to give the benefit of the doubt to an artist you like, or to take a fresh look at an artist you haven't liked in the past. But in the end, you're left with your own taste - informed and thoughtful, with any luck, but nonetheless your own. And if nothing else, I guess we have to respond to a production honestly - because what else can we do?

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