Love to Hate Me

I love hate mail. Next to the envelope that arrives at my home each week filled with what screenwriter Joseph Mankiewicz once called "the most restful shade of green," getting hate mail is the best part of my job.

I'm nuts for letters written by angry actors whose work I've dared to question. And e-mails from audience members who want me to know how very wrong my opinion about a certain play was. And I'm especially fond of notes from people who write to say that they have determined that I cannot write and am therefore a useless pile of twaddle.

Needless to say, much of my hate mail comes from angry theater folk. Apparently, there's a semester in Theater School devoted entirely to convincing thespians that they're above reproach and that anyone who dares to do anything but praise their work on stage is misguided and deserves to die. These people (and their friends and family and whoever they happen to be sleeping with at the moment) write to me with great frequency to tell me how very "wrong" my opinions are, and how and why they would like to see me crushed beneath the wheels of a bus. Much to the chagrin of Theater People across the land, I live on.

Probably more disturbing than the fact that I enjoy hearing from people who want me dead is the fact that I keep a small cache of my all-time favorite poison-pen letters, and that I take them out and read them whenever I need a good chuckle. Among my most cherished is one from a lonely suburbanite who wrote, in response to my contention that A . . . My Name Is Alice was an awful show that never should have been mounted in the first place, "Where do you get off, Mr. Pela? My fifth grader could write a better play review than you." (To which I could not help but reply, "Then, dear lady, buy her a Bic and send her to the Herberger.")

It's true. I probably shouldn't admit it, but I sometimes write back to people who send me hate mail. It's a combination of my sick desire to always have the last word and a residual childhood etiquette that says all letters and gifts deserve a response that leads me to sometimes shoot back a pissy retort to my anti-fans. When I recently wrote that I deplore the plays of William Shakespeare, one poor soul shot me a note saying, "It figures that you would hate Shakespeare. I bet you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and think it's good. Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" I replied, "I would love to. However, I'm not certain that there is anyone as big as me." When a local actress wrote that my nastier theater reviews were proof positive that I have a tiny penis, I was tempted to send her a Polaroid in response. And then there's the one that went, "I want you to know that I think you suck and your review of Cabaret proved that," to which I replied, "And I want you to eat me." Sometimes it's just too easy.

My new favorite, from a man with the improbable but utterly fitting name of Reynaldo Snipes, is one that arrived only recently. "New Times has you listed in its editorial staff box as a 'contributor,'" wrote Mr. Snipes. "I guess that must be polite newspaper jargon for asshole." You go, girl.

Most of the letters aren't as concise or as amusing as Mr. Snipes', and I find myself wishing that my hate mail was grander or more enraged. If I were to write a hate letter to myself, I'd pull out all the stops. "Who the hell do you think you are, pal?" I would probably begin. "You go to plays for free, then sit at home in your underpants, boring us to death with your monotonous opinions and supposedly clever insights into blocking and stage direction. Get a life, you creepy damn ape! You should be more like me, a person who would never, ever criticize someone for doing what their heart tells them to do. Criticizing people is bad, you big smelly gay turd, and you're going to hell for your crimes. And when you do, I'm going to laugh about it!"

Alas, I've never received a letter quite like this. I have, however, taken delivery of one that left big-mouthed, callous me utterly speechless. It arrived via e-mail about five years ago, from an actress whose talents I'd questioned in print for nearly a decade. She wrote to say that she was moving to Los Angeles to pursue what she hoped would be a "bigger" acting career, and she wanted me to know that, while she wouldn't miss me or my heartless critiques of her work, she'd put them to good use.

"I really think you're just another bitter man, of which I've had my share," she wrote. "I really think you were crueler to me than you needed to be when you wrote about me in plays. . . . [But] last week I aced an audition for Streetcar Named Desire, and I have you and your evil reviews to thank for it. I had to cry [during my audition as Stella], and right before I went out there I remembered your review of me in Butterflies Are Free and I wanted to die. So, thank you for being such a skunk. And I won't miss you. I hope the critics in Los Angeles are nicer than you are. Then again, maybe not."

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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