Culture News

It's Not Okay to Review Plays After One Act, Christopher Frizzelle

I have, on very rare occasions, left theater productions at intermission. When I’ve done so, it’s not only because the mess onstage has run me out of the room, but because I’ve also determined I have nothing greater to share about the production than a list of its inadequacies. That is sometimes not enough to make an interesting theater essay.

It goes without saying, I hope, that fleeing before Act Two commences always precludes my writing about the play in question.

I do not stay because it’s rude to leave, or even because the nice people at the theater have given me complimentary tickets, which are a perk of my job. I stay because it’s not possible to fairly review a play or musical that one has not seen through to its end. Pretending you gave the production you’re reviewing every possible chance is not ethical; it’s not fair-minded; it’s not journalism.

None of these things mattered to Christopher Frizzelle, editor in chief of Seattle’s alt weekly The Stranger. He published an essay on Monday, October 5 trumpeting his exit at intermission from a local production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, based on the story collection by Raymond Carver.

I suppose there might have been a humor piece in how Frizzelle left a production, had he bothered to reach for a punchline or set a scene even remotely amusing. Instead, he goes on to blast the worthiness of the play based on what he saw in Act One. To use his inability to stay as a barometer of a play’s value is just plain corrupt. And to criticize the half of the play he did witness is reprehensible. Where was this man’s editor? Oh, right. He is the editor. Well, then. He can do whatever the hell he wants to.

Staying until the end of a play one isn’t enjoying, Frizzelle writes, “gives the director and the producers and the actors unclear feedback. If theater audiences are not allowed to yell or throw things anymore, at least we ought to be allowed to politely decline to reenter the theater at intermission if it just doesn't seem worth it.”

Let’s overlook this absurd notion that directors, producers, and actors are counting empty seats after Act One, or that it was ever a practice of audiences to yell and throw things outside of a performance of The Rocky Horror Show. Let’s forget that Frizzelle repeatedly barges in on his theater critic Brendan Kiley’s beat with essays posing as reviews. (In one recent example, he coyly demanded that locals cancel all plans that would prevent them from seeing a production of Pippin, because he had liked it so. In a follow-up essay, he harangued readers because, apparently, more of them hadn’t heeded his advice.)

Let’s cherry-pick a more egregious sin committed by Frizzelle: Probably unbeknownst to him, his grandstanding is a retread of a similar essay of last December by Wall Street Journal critic Joanne Kaufman, who announced proudly that she routinely reviews shows after seeing only their first act.

“I’m of the ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ school,” Kaufman wrote, “and of the belief that only a few bites are required to determine that you just don’t like a particular dish.” (There is nothing in Frizzelle’s essay half as clever, although there is an entirely unforgivable reference to a Hall and Oates song — one of the lesser ones — that further illustrates Frizzelle’s disdain for cleverness.)

Kaufman was roundly trounced in the media and all up and down Broadway, and several artistic directors trimmed her name from their comps list. In an interview with theater writer Jeremy Gerard a week later, Kaufman made more enemies by asking, “Is my crime that I do it, or that I fessed up? I mean, whose dog did I poison?” Frizzelle’s tirade went viral among thespians on various social media sites but will have less lasting appeal, given his paper’s smaller readership and his essay’s rerun status. No one outside Seattle’s theater community will likely care much.

Frizzelle doesn’t need me policing his professional ethics. Fortunately for him, those of us old fogeys who care about things like journalistic ethics and responsible reporting and — dare I type it? — good writing are a dying breed. Eventually, films will be reviewed not by writers trained in critical thinking who actually saw the picture in question, but by ersatz commentators who are angry about the cast list of the movie. “I thought it sucked that Patricia Arquette was cast as a woman,” tomorrow’s film “critic” might snipe, “and so I refused to go. But you know if it was released by Miramax and was directed by Roland Joffe, it had to have blown. Don’t go see this.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela