Thursday, March 5, 2009

If Ben Brantley Compares Your Play To A Sitcom, Don't Feel Bad. You've Got Company.

Yet again today, in a habit he has honed since becoming the NYT's chief theater critic in 1996, Ben Brantley made still another dismissive reference to the television situation comedy in formulating his critique.

What exactly does Brantley have against sitcoms? Basically, he seems to believe they represent the lowest form of American culture, and references them whenever he wants to put down a playwright's comedic skills or intentions. He tosses the word around as though the entire form of television comedy has never once reached the lofty heights of theater -- a conclusion that would find its detractors among millions of Americans who prefer "30 Rock" to, say, "Zanadu."

In attacking "Distracted," Lisa Loomer's new play about Attention Deficit Disorder at the Roundabout, Brantley observes:

It’s just that “Distracted,” which opened Wednesday night at the Laura Pels Theater in an attractively acted production starring Cynthia Nixon, often feels like little more than a compilation of jokes and observations that have been made, ad nauseam, about this disorder during the last decade. Even if your mind operates like an over-revved automatic channel surfer, it is still bound to have registered — perhaps while hovering hummingbirdlike over a sitcom moment, a comic strip about a multitasking mom or a column in a parents’ magazine — much of what is said here.

For your reference, here's a collection of several Brantley sitcom put-downs, presented here without commercial interruption:

From his February 23, 2009 review of "The Winter's Tale," by William Shakespeare:

It’s impossible to think of these knee-slapping Bohemians being integrated into Leontes’s court, not because they’re socially inferior but because they’re so silly and superficial. Even Perdita and Florizel come across as the straight romantic relief in a sitcom. Not a fathom of the emotional depths sounded in the play’s first half is sounded here, and there has some to be point of connection.

From his November 18, 2008 review of "American Buffalo," by David Mamet:

The rhythms of this production are those of a sitcom, with lots of empty space between lines to let audiences fully register jokes and outlandish figures of speech.

From his May 9, 3008 review of "Rafta, Rafta..." by Ayub Khan-Din:

And the plot of “Rafta, Rafta ...,” adapted from “All in Good Time,” a Bill Naughton comedy from the 1960s, sounds like an extended blue joke, or the basis for a sniggery sitcom: Young man takes virginal bride home to live with the family, then finds himself unable to consummate the marriage because Mom, Dad and Little Brother keep interrupting and distracting him.

From his March 7, 2008 review of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams:

Mr. Esposito, Ms. Anderson and even on occasion Mr. Jones resort to broad exaggeration more appropriate to a sitcom.

From his December 8, 2006 review of "High Fidelity," book by David Lindsay-Abaire:

A figure who makes a hilarious cameo appearance in the book, the Most Pathetic Man in the World, is here fleshed out into a running sitcom character, and thus entirely loses his impact.

And we'll end this brief library of sitcom references with this classic Brantley putdown of sitcoms, a savage pan of Richard Greenberg's "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" published on October 7, 2005:

Is it possible that the exhaustingly prolific Richard Greenberg has been even busier than anyone suspected? Current evidence suggests that Mr. Greenberg, who has new plays opening at Lincoln Center and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago this season, has been moonlighting as a gag writer for sitcoms. And that he has been hoarding all the one-liners deemed too academic or simply too tired for television and crammed them together into yet another new play.

In outline, "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, does sound alarmingly like a last-ditch pitch for a comedy series by a writer desperate to make back alimony payments. You want a situation? Well, listen to this: A middle-aged pair of married, free-thinking intellectuals find their liberalism sorely tested when their three adopted, grown-up kids come home to roost in the old empty nest. And get this: Each of the kids is from a different race!

No, I'm not done yet. For the roles of the husband and wife, picture Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas. That's right, Ms. "Unmarried Woman" and John Boy Walton themselves, except 30 years or so later. And along the way, there will be some flirting with taboos, like lesbianism. Oh, that's not taboo anymore? Well, how about incest, except a kind of incest that won't really offend a mainstream audience? And to keep things lively, we'll throw in a wacky, semi-senile and completely un-self-censoring old broad.

You think you've seen that one before, huh? It's true that "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," directed by Doug Hughes and featuring Ms. Clayburgh (who deserves better) in her first appearance on Broadway in two decades, brings to mind a long, blurred roster of dysfunctional family comedies, from "Soap" to "Arrested Development."

We have no theories to explain this curious obsession, except that Brantley was probably prevented from watching television sitcoms as a child, and told to go to his room and listen to show tunes.


Anonymous said...

How does Brantley know anything about sitcoms, anyway? If he's doing his job right he's at the theater during prime time. He's a pompous ass.

Anonymous said...

Bet he likes Will & Grace. I'm just saying.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm not as offended by tossing off comparisons to sitcoms. It's like an analyst for natural gas companies comparing prices of natural gas to oil. They're competitive products.

And just like the theater, the sitcom world has its own rules that are followed just as slavishly. Whatever "rule breaking" is small and concentrated on unimportant artiface. The central rules are never challenged.

It's all about knowing your audience. Timothy Egan scores big points by calling Rush Limbaugh a clown. Sitcom writers score big points by ending the season with a wedding. And authors of plays score big points by having a caustic, cynical view of life. The audience gets what it wants and everyone goes home happy-- even if they're looking to be fed depressing news.

Do you honestly think that anyone turns to NYTPick for complements about the NYT? Nope. They want to see the mighty brought low. And you better deliver or the flighty humans will go elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Brantley's just a classic theater snob who can't abide the idea of mass entertainment. Frasier is better than most of the crap on Broadway but he'd never acknowledge that, because it diminishes his importance.