Reading a Ben Brantley review leaves little doubt: This is a man who loves his job. As chief theater critic for The New York Times, having begun there as a theater reviewer in 1993, he writes reviews that are insightful, intelligent, and, most important, joyously passionate. Although his first journalism job was as a fashion reporter for Women's Wear Daily (with no previous knowledge of fashion, he bemusedly adds), Brantley has always been an ardent theater fan. He was 15 when he saw his first Broadway production, Follies, and 32 years later he can still recall every moment "scene by scene." Having edited the recently published The New York Times Book of Broadway, which contains 125 Times reviews of some of the most unforgettable productions of the last century, Brantley sat down with The Advocate to discuss gays in theater, 2001's best of Broadway, and his infamous television debate in June with homophobic critic John Simon. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
How did you decide which 125 reviews to include in the book?
Several factors. We wanted reviews that embody the time. These are productions that had a real impact and made news, something that people said they'd never seen anything like that. These are shows that either disturbed or shocked or were else such perfection that they became a standard for all other productions.
Looking at the past year, what do you think of the current state of gay theater? I know you liked Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby.
I don't think of that as a gay play, although Albee is a playwright who is gay. To try and interpret everything he writes as if it's coded homosexuality is wrong. I had an argument with John Simon [on Charlie Rose's PBS show] about this. The Play About the Baby was much more resonant than Simon thought. I don't think it's coded "faggot nonsense," as he would have it.
How did the whole subject come up between you and Simon?
Charlie Rose had said something about how I had grown into the job, giving me a kind of pat on the back. Then he turned to John and said, "Don't you agree?" And John said something like [imitating an affected voice], "Oh, yes, but the one difference between us, I would say, is Mr. Brantley's affection, for want of a better word, for what I call `the homosexual play.'" And of course I just went, "Huh?" Then I said, "Are we going back to The Play About the Baby?" Because we had argued about it earlier. To which he said, "Yes, that and others."
I think John mistakes obscurity for homosexuality. He feels a little threatened. So I said that I believe it's generational. A lot of the things that he identifies with gay sensibility are certain kinds of irony, a sense of talking in quotation marks, and what we often call camp, something that most kids are now familiar with in the age of Letterman. Then I said to him [laughing], "Maybe it's in the water, John. Maybe it's that gay fluoride in the water."
What makes a good theater critic?
For me, tone of voice. It's someone you want to listen to whether you agree with him or not. You want that kind of dialogue going in your head.
Is that what you take into account when you write your reviews? …