Remembering Phoenix Theater Writer Kyle Lawson

Phoenix theater writer Kyle Lawson died on Thursday, February 1.
Phoenix theater writer Kyle Lawson died on Thursday, February 1. Markus Pfaf/Shutterstock
One afternoon about 25 years ago, Kyle Lawson took me to lunch at the Compass Room. My old friend, then the lead theater writer at the Arizona Republic, was worried about me.

“You’re going to the theater too much,” he said. “Four times a week! You’ll wear yourself out, and your fatigue will affect your opinion of what you’re seeing.”

“Oh, please, Burns Mantle,” I replied, because Kyle let me call him that sometimes. “Seeing everything I can gives me a better idea of who’s doing what. Besides, my quota is huge.”

Thrilled to be spending the Republic’s money, I ordered another martini. “Anyway, I’m single. What the hell else do I have to do with my evenings?”

Kyle, who died on Thursday morning from congestive heart failure, liked looking after people. He wanted to play big brother to me, and I teased him mercilessly about it. “I’ve already got three big brothers,” I told him once while we waited on line at the Herberger. “They barely know I exist. How about you try that for a while?”

And then we both laughed.

That was our shtick: He’d be concerned, kind, and loving, and I’d roll my eyes and say something tart, and we’d both stand there, giggling and snorting. We were the Wheeler and Woolsey of theater criticism, playing the same arch scene, over and over, for one another’s benefit.

Kyle’s other gambit with me was to ignore my snotty comments. “Oh, God, Kyle,” I whined once during a Gammage intermission. “Please tell me we didn’t both drive across town to witness a bus-and-truck Mamma Mia!”

“Tell me your favorite ABBA song,” Kyle replied, pretending he hadn’t heard. “Mine is ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme A Man After Midnight.’”

The theater community loved Kyle, and will no doubt be lining up for weeks to pay tribute to his large heart, which finally failed him. They’ll recall his positive words and his more-than-fair approach to theater reviewing.

(Kyle hated being called a “critic,” and told me often he couldn’t bear to lean too heavily on any production or performance, because he’d once been an actor himself. It was another thing we bickered politely about. “Have an opinion!” I’d yell, and Kyle would change the subject.)

Friends will recall Kyle’s love for his dog, Bailey, about whom he wrote imagined conversations he posted on Facebook, and his wonderful relationship with his wife, Pat, who became Kyle’s full-time advocate when his health began to decline.

I’ll remember Kyle’s longstanding loyalty. He defended me tirelessly to theater folk who thought I was “mean” in print. (“Leave them alone and let them hate me!” I’d plead, but Kyle always refused.)

He wrote long posts and even longer emails, lauding my writing career, my devotion to my husband, my decision to care for my elderly mother rather than place her in a facility. He’d end every note with a sly reference to our disparate approach to criticism (“I’ve got this play I’d like you to read,” he wrote in one of his last emails to me. “Try to be kind.”).

And always, always, there was some oblique and warmhearted reference to our “brotherhood.”
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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