Monday, April 20, 2009

Meet Ben Brantley, The Sultan Of Superlatives! Run, Don't Walk, To Read His Rave Reviews!

Mary Stuart is "terrifically exciting." Joe Turner's Come and Gone "feels positively airborne." Next to Normal is "brave" and "breathtaking."

And that's just since Thursday!

Frank Rich's come and gone. The garrulous, dreaded NYT critic known to producers as the "Butcher of Broadway" no longer roams the aisles of the theater district with a venomous pen. He has been replaced by Ben Brantley, the Sultan of Superlatives.

Of ten new Broadway productions to open in the last 30 days, the Sultan has written raves of eight of them -- reviews with enough over-the-top adjectives to ensure that his words will banner the ads that appear in his own newspaper's Arts & Leisure section. Even when there's an undercurrent of doubt in his review, Brantley appears to be searching for ways to suppress the negatives and keep his commentary upbeat.

Could that be the point? Has Brantley become a tool in the NYT"s desperate effort to keep alive an industry battered by the recession? The NYT has always depended heavily on Broadway advertising; it remains one of the few NYC businesses that regularly buys full-page ads to sell its products. It seems unlikely that Brantley would sell his soul to the advertising department...but hey, he did once call Damn Yankees a "comforting lullaby."

Whatever the reasons, Brantley has showered Broadway with praise in recent days, so much so it seems beyond coincidence.

Brantley's run of raves began a month ago, when he issued a modest endorsement (with minor caveats) for the West Side Story revival. He described the production as "startlingly sweet" and declared Josefina Scaglione, the unknown who plays Maria, as "stunningly natural." It seemed as though he had a negative review ready beneath the surface, but couldn't let it out. Instead, he concluded with a defense against his own objections:

When Mr. Cavenaugh and Ms. Scaglione sing the duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” it’s hard not to melt into sweet, empathetic adolescent agony. First love may ultimately be only a matter of biologically programmed impulses. But the emotions it inspires, as this Tony and Maria remind us so poignantly, can transform the erotic into truly Edenic innocence.

Next up came God of Carnage, the Yazmin Reza play about two parents dueling over their children. Again, the Sultan seemed to be searching for nice things to say:

“God of Carnage”...definitely delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom. A study in the tension between civilized surface and savage instinct, this play (which recently won the Olivier Award in London for best new comedy) is itself a satisfyingly primitive entertainment with an intellectual veneer....“God of Carnage” may be a familiar comic journey from A to B, but it travels first class.

After a brief stop to join the angry mob of critics who stomped on Impressionism, Brantley returned to raves with his March 27 review of Exit The King, the Ionesco revival starring Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. He declared it a "brutally funny revival" and called it "genius," with words like "superb" and "knockout" to describe its performances.

But all that served as a subtle prelude to the Sultan's April 1 review of the revival of Hair on Broadway:

You’ll be happy to hear that the kids are all right. Quite a bit more than all right. Having moved indoors to Broadway from the Delacorte Theater in Central Park — where last summer they lighted up the night skies, howled at the moon and had ticket seekers lining up at dawn — the young cast members of Diane Paulus’s thrilling revival of “Hair” show no signs of becoming domesticated.

On the contrary, they’re tearing down the house in the production that opened on Tuesday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. And any theatergoer with a pulse will find it hard to resist their invitation to join the demolition crew. This emotionally rich revival of “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” from 1967 delivers what Broadway otherwise hasn’t felt this season: the intense, unadulterated joy and anguish of that bi-polar state called youth.

Two days later, Brantley hailed the Broadway production of Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty:

Yet “reasons to be pretty,” which opened Thursday night at the Lyceum Theater in a wonderfully acted production directed by Terry Kinney, may turn out to be the sentimental sleeper of a season that includes star-powered, would-be tear-jerkers like “33 Variations” and the unfortunate “Impressionism.” Making his Broadway debut with a revised (and much improved) version of a play seen off Broadway last year, Mr. LaBute has exchanged misanthropy for empathy, reaping unexpected dividends.

It would be almost two weeks before the next Broadway opening, leaving time for Brantley to check out some off-Broadway productions. He caught La Didone at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn and found it "wondrous." He stopped by Christopher Durang's new play at the Public Theater, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, and declared it "hilarious and disturbing."

Brantley returned to Broadway last week with a review of the musical Next to Normal that could cause a producer to spontaneously combust with joy:

No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives....

Such emotional rigor is a point of honor for “Next to Normal,” sensitively directed by Michael Greif and featuring a surging tidal score by Tom Kitt, with a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. With an astounding central performance from Alice Ripley as Diana Goodman, a housewife with bipolar disorder, this production assesses the losses that occur when wounded people are anesthetized — and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue, denial with a smile.

That theme was also at the center of the production that opened Off Broadway last year (at the Second Stage Theater) under the same title and with most of the same cast, technical team and music. Yet the differences between “Next to Normal” then and now are substantial enough to inspire hope for all imbalanced shows in need of rehabilitation.

The next day came Brantley's paean to the revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone:

Great works of art often tote heavy baggage. Yet the revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a drama of indisputable greatness, feels positively airborne. Much of Bartlett Sher’s splendid production, which opened Thursday night at the Belasco Theater, moves with the engaging ease of lively, casual conversation.

This morning's review of Mary Stuart won't disappoint Broadway producers longing for yet more Brantley love:

You can argue all you like, as historians and theologians have for centuries, about which of them has the greater claim to the English throne. But after seeing the terrifically exciting new production of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” which opened Sunday night at the Broadhurst Theater, you won’t doubt that both the queens it portrays are born to rule. So, I might add, are the actresses who play them.

Okay, so maybe it's all just a coincidence. After all, this is the time of year when Broadway producers put on their likeliest hits. But with all the gushing praise from Brantley, we kind of miss the days when Frank Rich savaged Broadway productions left and right, with his famously high standards and expert critical judgement. Maybe producers won't agree, but we wouldn't mind a revival of Rich's tough, passionate perspective in the NYT arts section once in a while. The Butcher's still in the building, right?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hah. I'm not surprised that NYTPicker would hate someone with a positive attitude.

But since when did high standards get us anywhere? If I want that, I'll go watch the cadets drill on the parade grounds at West Point. For the after theater meal, I'll chug some cod liver oil.

If I want a nice, entertaining evening, I'll go to a play that Ben Brantley recommends.

This is a deep issue for reviewers. Does it really help to have a butcher tell us everything that's wrong? I much prefer reviews written by reporters or people trying to think like reporters. Instead of passing judgement-- is it a coincidence that we match the verb "passing" with "gas"-- a good reviewer will give us enough accurate information about the art work so we can make our own decision.

For instance, I can make an informed decision when a reviewer tells me, "The movie has several long battle scenes that will thrill the boys who love the space dog fights in 'Star Wars'." But if a snide butcher starts larding up the text with pejoratives like 'juvenile', 'derivative', or 'stupid', well, I've got to work hard to figure out what I want to do. There are many days when I want juvenile entertainment, but I would prefer that it come with a bit of lipstick and kindness. So use words like "youthful' or "spritely."

So Ben, if you're out there, sail right on past these shoals. If a glass of milk is only 10% full, spend the time telling us about that 10% because that's what's going to sustain us.