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January 3, 2014

How Much Can We See?

Jonathan Tolins is a playwright I’ve admired for a long time. In 1993, I devoted a full column to defending his poorly received THE TWILIGHT OF THE GOLDS, for when I attended I heard an audience gasp in horror at his play’s great revelation. Any playwright who can make that happen is someone worth encouraging.

Over the last 20 years, Tolins has proved me right. He was an important asset to QUEER AS FOLK. His THE LAST SUNDAY IN JUNE could be seen as a smart homage-slash-update to THE BOYS IN THE BAND, although the play stood tall on its own. He has a current surprise smash hit with BUYER & CELLAR. And last but hardly least, as an actor he certainly made his mark playing “Gay Quarterback” in the 2003 film called TOTALLY SEXY LOSER.

And while I’m delighted by his success and my admiration remains staunch, I must take issue with a statement he recently made on Facebook.

Tolins wrote, “Without commenting on whether or not I agree with their opinions, does anyone else find it odd that the chief film critics of the New York and Los Angeles Times, A.O. Scott and Kenneth Turan, both mention in their reviews that they never saw AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY on stage? This was one of the most highly lauded, awarded and popular plays of the last decade. Wouldn’t you expect important film critics to go to the theater every now and then just to keep up? Wouldn’t that be part of the job? Or has any connection between theater and cinema been lost? Can you imagine a critic for either paper writing in 1951, ‘I never managed to see STREETCAR onstage, but...’?”

A deluge of opinions followed. Some disagreed with Tolins: “There is a purity in not comparing the film to the play.” “Film critics are there to judge just the film that’s placed before them.” “Why compare the movie to a play?” “They don’t acknowledge TV. Why would they consider theater?”

Some agreed with Tolins. “How many critics of that stature would admit to not having read the prestigious novel an adaptation was based on? None.” “Blinders on to art forms other than one’s specialty or non-artistic events is considerably limiting.”

And one sardonic soul wrote “Film critics stopped needing to know anything about anything a long time ago.”

The first time I ever ran into this argument was in 1974 when I read Harold Prince’s CONTRADICTIONS. He had written, “The only interesting thing to me in Pauline Kael’s review of the FIDDLER film is a sentence in which she said she’d never seen the play” before noting that “she had seven and a half years to see it.” Prince also asked “How in hell can a person in the business of reviewing ignore the most esteemed works in the allied arts? Is it too much to ask that film critics visit the theater and vice versa? That all critics visit museums and lecture halls and turn on their television sets?”

Perhaps it is.

In the last 26 years that I’ve been steadily reviewing, there has never been a season in which I’ve seen fewer than 155 shows. In 2010-2011, I saw 368 – more than one a day, thanks to matinees and late-night shows. Needless to say, that took up quite a bit of time – time that I didn’t have to give films.

When I was living in Massachusetts, far from the lights of Broadway and teaching for a living, my hobby was seeing every Oscar-nominated film in every major category – not to mention a few other films, too. (Just because STATE FAIR went un-nominated, I wasn’t going to miss it.) Yes, theater was my first love, but there just weren’t that many plays and musicals offered in the Boston area, so the obvious way to spend free time was to see films at local movie houses and on television.

And then I moved to New York.

Movies then took such a back seat that we can say that they were in the trunk of the car behind me.

I knew how much I’d changed on March 26, 1996 when BRAVEHEART won the Oscar for Best Picture; for the first time ever, the film that had won the Academy Award was one of which I’d never heard of until that night. But, oh, I could tell you about plenty of shows that were playing right then in off-off-Broadway hole-in-the-walls.

Once you get into an art form, you tend to want to know more and more about it, and the extra time you spend learning about it does make other art forms suffer.

That doesn’t mean a total lack of involvement. Using Prince’s yardstick, I’ve seen such significant art as ARRANGEMENT IN GREY AND BLACK (a/k/a WHISTLER’S MOTHER) at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris; the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City; Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington (that we see on a $1 bill) at the Phoenix Art Museum and, needless to say, A SUNDAY AFTERNOON ON THE ISLAND OF LA GRANDE JATTE at the Chicago Art Institute. Good times all. Glad I fit them in.

And through the video revolution, I’ve seen plenty of films long after the fact. Right now, I’m 46 minutes into the 2001 film GOSFORD PARK. (Not bad, not bad.) And when I hear that a movie’s being made into a musical (and what ELSE gets made into musicals these days?), I get the film. BIG FISH and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS now live in my house because the autumn brought us musicalizations. Not that I feel duty-bound to see the movie in advance; I just enjoy and find stimulating the act of comparing and contrasting film and musical.

So I, like you, now have the luxury of seeing virtually every movie that I would care to see through wondrous advances in technology.
We only need get to our computers and make a few keystrokes (all right, more than a few). That’s a substantially easier task than a film critic’s going to see a play. I can see virtually any movie morning, noon, afternoon and night in the comfort of my home; film critics must arrange to see one of eight performances during a week at a precisely specified time. Some performance times must conflict with the times they’re in screening rooms or, of course, writing their reviews and features.

Turan should really be let off the hook for missing AUGUST, for how long was the play in Los Angeles? Yes, New Yorker Scott had 20 months, which may sound long, but as every adult will tell you, time goes fast. When many of us are asked, “Did you see such-and-such?” we often scrunch our faces in frustration and moan, “No! I meant to!” And we’re people who have our fingers on the theater pulse – and still we can’t get to everything.

Besides, if BIG FISH and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS hadn’t been musicalized, I know I wouldn’t have sought out the films. Must a film critic go to every play on the off-chance that it will be a movie? No, you say, only the major ones, for they’re the only ones that’ll be turned into films. Well, LUCKY STIFF and THE LAST FIVE YEARS, which each only played a few months off-Broadway, will be released to movie theaters in 2014. Should we have expected our film critics to have caught them on-stage?

There’s a difference, you say – because AUGUST was a far more celebrated property with a Tony and Pulitzer to its credit. Yes, but that still doesn’t mean that Scott should have rushed to 45th Street to see it. Just because a play’s film rights are sold doesn’t mean the film will be made. Where’s THE DAY BEFORE SPRING, NO STRINGS, SHE LOVES ME and YOUR OWN THING, all of which got movie sales? Should film critics in 1975 have seen CHICAGO so they’d be prepared to discuss it intelligently 27 years later when the film was made?

But that’s not the real reason why film critics don’t go to the theater.
David LeShay, the director of marketing and public relations with the Theater Development Fund, told the truth when he wrote “They wouldn’t get comped by the press agents, that’s why.”

         — Peter Filichia

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