Newspaper article International New York Times

In Defense of Candid Reviews, Minus the Nastiness ; Writer Muses on Satire about Theater, Criticism and a Small Community

Newspaper article International New York Times

In Defense of Candid Reviews, Minus the Nastiness ; Writer Muses on Satire about Theater, Criticism and a Small Community

Article excerpt

A critic revisiting Cape Cod in the high season muses about "The Kritik," a satire about theater, criticism and the nature of community in a small town.

I was early for a performance here last week, so I took my sandals off and went for a barefoot stroll along the beach, on the hard, wet sand below the high-tide line. Not the sort of thing I had time to do eons ago, when I was a baby theater critic on Cape Cod, where the residents work long summer hours while the tourists play.

The high season was always busy then, with lots to review, and I did what so many young critics do. In love with the sound of my own voice, unaware of how lastingly harmful meanness could be, I was sometimes far harsher than I should have been. One furious reader whose girlfriend was in a musical I had savaged wrote a letter to the paper where I worked, calling me a dilettante and suggesting I ought to be selling shoes, not reviewing drama.

I didn't take his career advice, though I did eventually leave the Cape. Now, when I return, seeing theater is one of my favorite indulgences. So last week I headed to Harbor Stage Company, eager to see Brenda Withers's "The Kritik," a mock-Chekhovian comedy about a small-town reviewer determined to stop pulling his punches.

Of all the theaters I love, the tiny space that Harbor Stage occupies is most deeply embedded in my heart, going back to the years when Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater thrived there. Harbor Stage's home is a squat, windswept, utterly humble little building on the harbor that I think of as a beach shack, though it's more solid than that. The work I encountered there in the 1990s -- plays like Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz" and, years before its New York premiere, her "Hot 'n' Throbbing" -- helped to form me as a critic.

So there was a palimpsest quality to watching "The Kritik," the ghost of my younger self right there with me to hear the play's exhilaratingly impassioned, many-layered challenge to critics, delivered with unusual sympathy. Ms. Withers -- a founder of Harbor Stage Company who is probably best known for writing and performing the celebrity sendup "Matt & Ben," with her friend Mindy Kaling, before Ms. Kaling became a celebrity herself -- is arguing for something that could only help the theater to thrive: robust criticism that's simultaneously more honest and more humane.

"Oh, no one remembers what a critic writes," a sophisticated stranger named Kazmir (Robert Kropf) says to a local actress, Tatiana Bukhavitsky (Molly Kimmerling), late in "The Kritik," set in a small-town tavern in 19th-century Russia.

"I do," Tatiana replies quietly, and there is something immensely touching about the way she can instantly recall the wounding words that she quotes next, from a review years before in Moscow. "'If there is one inscrutable mystery at the center of this otherwise chilling thriller, it is how Ms. Bukhavitsky, a flimsy and obtuse performer, made her way on to the stage."'

Tatiana hasn't had to worry about any such brutality since she's moved to Abliveta, a provincial hamlet whose sole critic, Volya Vedininski (Jonathan Fielding), has always observed a policy of misguided boosterism, praising even the most dreadful dreck. …

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