The year that just ended was a difficult one for people who make theater, as they faced economic, aesthetic and medical challenges. In a smaller way it was therefore a strange year for those of us who write about and review their work. Not until late summer 2020 — and then more fully in the fall — did we see live plays and musicals, and enjoy the pleasures that come with doing so: not just the communal experience in the theater but also the shared reflection afterward.
For us — Jesse Green, the chief theater critic, and Maya Phillips, a critic at large — that shared reflection often included the gift of disagreement. And so, on the last day of 2021, we met, in cyberspace, to talk about what each of us liked most over the last several months, what we disliked most — and how a bit of (respectful!) head-butting can expand our understanding of both. Below, edited excerpts from the conversation.
JESSE GREEN The return of live theater, however precarious, was a great thing for both of us — as critics, of course, but also as lovers of plays and musicals. There was a lot to see, and a lot we liked.
MAYA PHILLIPS It was strange, though, to return to crowded theaters after being holed up in our apartments for so long. And it felt overwhelming — in a good way, but still overwhelming — to dive right back into a full fall season. But, yes, it was great to be back. What stood out to you?
GREEN I found myself gravitating, somewhat unexpectedly, to the extremes of experience, rather than the subtle middle ground I often find so amenable. I went for big comedy and sensation, as in the first live show I saw, “Merry Wives,” Jocelyn Bioh’s Shakespeare revamp for the Public Theater in Central Park. To share belly laughs with hundreds of people again was a joy. I felt that way again, indoors, with “Six.”
A grand Broadway spectacle: The cast of “Six,” the new musical about the wives of Henry VIII. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
PHILLIPS I agree. I loved the color of “Merry Wives” in every respect — the bright costumes, the flashy ending, the vibrant performances and, of course, that cast of people of color. “Six” was the epitome of the grand spectacle that Broadway can be — in all the best ways. And don’t forget “Trouble in Mind.” That was one of my favorites, and I thought the comedy worked so well in that production.
This should come as no surprise to you, but I’m more of a tragedy girl myself. What appealed to you on the more somber side of things?
GREEN Funny you should mention “Trouble in Mind,” which I responded to both as a comedy (which it is, formally) and as a tragedy (which it is, sociologically). That’s part of what made Alice Childress’s play, which was supposed to have its Broadway premiere in 1957, so smashing in 2021: It finds a way to tell a story about the waste of Black talent within the warm, familiar confines of a backstage setting. But I suspect your penchant for tragedy is more in the classic vein — and there, I think we would want to talk about “Pass Over.”
PHILLIPS I’m an equal opportunity lover of all forms of tragedy, but yes, my preferred brand of comedy is laced with the kind of biting sociological satire and subtly tragic moments that Childress offers in “Trouble in Mind.”
When I think about “Pass Over,” the explicit moments of tragedy aren’t what stand out. In fact, those moments of physical and emotional and verbal violence — the ending in particular — didn’t always work for me. The most fascinating aspects, and the most tragic, were the ways the two Black characters related to each other, within this framework that the playwright, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, adopted from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” It’s the same kind of nihilistic view that Beckett had, with similar linguistic play, but it’s so much more meaningful because it’s used to reveal how race is its own trap, a purgatory, in America. But then it also contains humor, like “Trouble in Mind.”
Inadvertently but appropriately, purgatory was a frequent theme as live theater ventured out this fall. Another show that dramatized it — and sang about it, too — was the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “Caroline, or Change,” in which the title character, a Black woman in Louisiana, spends most of her working life in the subterranean laundry room of a Jewish family. And in Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” the limbo of being Dreamers — the children of undocumented immigrants in the United States — becomes not just a political problem but an emotional one, as two teenagers, denied a place in the country, try to find a place for themselves in each other. With a few reservations, I loved both those shows, and I think you did too.
PHILLIPS Yes, both were fantastic, and I’d also add Sylvia Khoury’s brutal “Selling Kabul,” at Playwrights Horizons, to that category of shows featuring characters trapped in a kind of political limbo. Though, in that case, it’s also literal, because the whole play takes place in one small apartment, and one of the characters is unable to leave. But I want to get to some of the things we disagree on, because I feel as if — despite our different preferences — we’re often on the same page when it comes to the criticism. The fall had a lot of shows we didn’t see eye to eye on!
GREEN I guess that brings us to “Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage — another purgatory play. This time the purgatory is a truck stop sandwich shop run by a diabolical character (played by Uzo Aduba) and staffed by former prisoners who have almost no way back into society. And yet, somehow, it’s a comedy.
PHILLIPS A comedy that I didn’t find funny! I love Lynn Nottage, but I’ve noticed I’ve had problems with her comedies. And this one in particular I found flimsy. To use the already heavy-handed sandwich metaphor, I’d say there wasn’t enough meat to it, despite the performances, which I liked. But I also wished that Aduba had more to do; it was great watching a Black woman be this ridiculously arch villain, but that character, and the whole theme of redemption and connection through the creative art of sandwich-making, felt one-note to me.
GREEN Comedy is more personal than tragedy. I laughed and laughed — no doubt in part because of the performances but also for the very reason you were disappointed: It didn’t try to explain itself. Also, it gave us characters, most of them Black and Latino, without a white filter, which for me was a pleasure and a relief. Also a pleasure and a relief: The characters (spoiler alert) escaped their purgatory. Which is not to say I don’t understand your criticisms; I find them useful because one person can only absorb one idea of a play at a time. I wonder if you feel the same way, or whether it’s just annoying when we disagree?
PHILLIPS What you say about comedy being more personal is exactly right. I had issues with the allegory to begin with, and because it’s so prevalent, I was looking for other dimensions or nuances to latch onto but was just left with the element of the play — the main element — that I found unappealing.
But I never find our disagreements annoying! At first I found them unsettling. I’m not sure if you still get the anxiety I do — that you’ve missed something that your fellow critics haven’t, and that must be the root of the disagreement, that you’re just wrong. Now I find our disagreements informative. Like with your review of “Clyde’s,” you pointed out the same problems I had with it, but while those issues couldn’t redeem the show for me, for you there was more to it. What’s most important to me there was that we saw the same things and just had different responses.
GREEN I like that formulation, and wish it were more commonly held. But it’s understandable that people want critics to love what they love; critics feel the same way! I do feel scarily out on a limb when I dislike something so many people, including my colleagues, like. That was most painfully the case with the new gender-switched revival of “Company,” because I spent a lot of the running time trying to convince myself that I was enjoying it when in fact, as I had to accept when I got home, I wasn’t.
PHILLIPS That is difficult! I admire that you stuck to your guns there, especially because I think a lot of people went in expecting to enjoy it because of the cast, because of the reputation of the show, and of course because Stephen Sondheim died this fall. With “Company,” you had context I didn’t have going in. I’d heard the songs and knew the story, but this was my first time seeing the show. And yet again, I agreed with your points, especially about the elaborate set overwhelming the content, but found the gender swap, with some small exceptions, more interesting and relevant. There were definitely some awkward lyric changes, but I thought the way the dialogue was changed and how the characters’ relationships with a now-female Bobbie changed created fresh tension that worked. And I found it refreshing to see a female lead who might be passive and aloof, yes, but is able to own that — and the fact that she’s single — in a way that a man can in society. It’s much more rare to see that kind of female character, and I loved Katrina Lenk’s performance.
GREEN Did you feel that way about Victoria Clark in “Kimberly Akimbo,” the new musical by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire about a teenager (played by Clark) who, because of a rare disease, looks like she’s in her 60s? I gave it (and her) a rave review but you told me you weren’t convinced.
PHILLIPS Yes, I enjoyed Clark’s performance but had a similar experience to the one you had at “Company” during this show — I sat there wanting to enjoy it but had to admit to myself that it just wasn’t clicking for me. I admired what it was trying to do, and I welcome bonkers new musicals like this one, but I thought the book just needed a lot more work. The funny but random scheming aunt, who takes up so much room in the show; the awkwardly incorporated student chorus; Kimberly’s relationship with her parents; her relationship with her own disease — there were so many places where I felt the show could have cut or expanded and refocused itself while still maintaining its quirkiness. And to be honest, the songs weren’t very memorable to me.
GREEN Oh, that stabs me in the heart! But that’s what it means to accept that theater, like all experience, is subjective, and therefore so is criticism. You’re going to hurt sometimes. People have told me — most recently at a funeral! — that they dislike my reviews because they’re “so mean.” When I engage those people further, it often turns out that it’s not the supposed meanness but the disagreement itself that makes them angry. Some people just can’t be happy unless everyone loves “Diana, the Musical” and “Flying Over Sunset,” to name two shows I didn’t — and you didn’t, either. Do you get that?
PHILLIPS I do get that! But more so on Twitter, with random internet trolls, and more so with fandoms other than theater. I often am seen as a curmudgeon or contrarian by my family and friends, but then when they read my reviews they always tell me I’m fair. Sometimes it is fun to be the one with the controversial opinion. But I’m interested in discourse; disagreement is just part of the job, and we need it. We’re not the same people with the same experiences. Our differences of opinion reveal the differences in our experiences, which in turn highlight different dimensions of what we’re critiquing. As long as that criticism is thoughtfully considered and argued, it’s all useful.
GREEN I grew up arguing with my family about everything we saw. In a way, that’s how you learn that other people exist as much as you do, and how you come to understand what you experience more fully. In that sense, unexpected or outré or at least strongly worded positions are necessary. Even when they are quite negative they can be seen, I hope, as joyful contributions to the mutual project — as “Company” has it — of being alive.