Pro-Choice Misgivings

Jacqueline Gaston arrives early in act two of Is What It Is Theatre's production of Critic's Choice, and her presence is like a breath of fresh air in a stifling room. Which is precisely where this play, a dated comedy by author Ira Levin, happens to take place. But I forgot I was in a muggy storefront while Gaston was onstage. Her performance is full of witty asides and bright readings of Levin's mostly dullish dialogue, and would shine alongside any Barrymore's. In a crimson dress and steel-gray wig, she's magnificent, even in repose, and is responsible for most of the few bits of fun in this also-ran production.

Levin's story is preposterous: Parker Ballantine, a respected New York drama critic, is asked to review the lousy play his wife -- who's not a playwright -- has written and somehow gotten produced on Broadway. The critic's mother-in-law, his ex-wife, and his cranky daughter are all on hand to comment on whether he should critique his wife's play, although little of what they have to say is funny or interesting. There's an attempted seduction by the ex-wife, a lot of cute whining by the kid, and plenty of pre-ERA male chauvinism.

In fact, Levin's sexist dialogue is a big part of the problem here, and marks this kind-of comedy as a ratty period piece. "This isn't a cake, or a hairdo, or a slipcover!" Ballantine hollers at his wife when she dares to dream about writing a play when she should be in the kitchen scrubbing pots. And then there are the pages of arch banter about the theater; references to George Jean Nathan and quips like "A playwright's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's New Haven for?" -- all lost on the sold-out crowd who turned up for this show's second performance. Among Levin's sins here is dialogue that forwards the notion that it's a theater critic's job to promote rather than opine about plays and musicals ("Critics are supposed to point up, not down!"). Thanks, Ira.

At one point Ballantine writes, "The actors last night were wooden and rigid and so was the script. In fact, everything last night was wooden and rigid with one exception, and that, unfortunately, was the scenery." He might well have been reviewing this production because, aside from Gaston's superb performance, the acting is mostly undistinguished. If all theater critics resembled handsome Brett Tuttle, we might make our livings posing for cologne ads rather than pounding out opinions. And if all actors acted like Tuttle, theater could double as a form of torture. Tuttle, who has appeared in three previous plays, might consider switching avocations.

Amanda Holt, a young actress with a more-than-passing resemblance to Anne Heche, proves a bland leading lady opposite Michael Peck, whose brief appearances as an oily theater director are scene-stealers. Holt is also made to share the stage with Bailey Caskey, who grabs some laughs as the slutty actress who's just closed out of town in a musical comedy version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Is What It Is has convinced me in the past to reconsider some fusty old scripts. This time, though, I left the theater having seen a handful of nice scenes but wishing for more. Or, to quote Parker Ballantine's review of Ibsen, "If this is The Wild Duck, I'll just have the vegetable plate."

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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