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Ben Brantley Looks Back on His 27 Years of Theater Criticism

Critics look back for a living; that’s what it means to “review.” But healthy ones, focusing on each new play they see, don’t spend a lot of time on the old stuff. So before Ben Brantley put down his pen, I wanted to ask him (as I hadn’t had time to in the three years we’ve worked together) what his 27 years as a Times critic looked like in the rearview mirror — and what he saw ahead. These are excerpts from our final conversation as colleagues.

JESSE GREEN As far as I can tell, Ben, you made your first appearance in The Times in 1981, long before you became a theater critic here. You were then writing for Women’s Wear Daily, in which capacity William Safire quoted you in his On Language column as an authority on fashion-speak: the “big sweep” of shawls and the “Sir Tom Jones look.” Is there more of a connection than we might suppose between what you covered there and the shows you started covering in 1993, when you joined The Times?

BEN BRANTLEY Ah, I’m glad you brought that up, Jesse, as that misquotation still rankles. I said simply “the Tom Jones look.” As an English major, I would never have ennobled that foundling hero, and the misattribution made me suspicious of what I read in The Times for a good while. But yes, reviewing fashion — just out of college, with no background in the field — was great practical training for reviewing theater. You had to focus on a fleeting vision, which materialized on a stage (or runway) for a matter of seconds, commit it to memory, and instantly pass some sort of judgment as to its viability.

GREEN Your first review in The Times was of “Annie Warbucks,” the misbegotten 1993 sequel to the megahit “Annie.” I think we could call it negative: After ripping through the second-rate score and skeletal book and cheap sets and shimmying little girls, you wrote that even the dog who played Annie’s beloved Sandy was “rather wooden.” Be honest, did you love writing a pan, right from the get-go?

BRANTLEY I was pleased to have a show (a singing comic strip!) that demanded to be written about with pop flair for my debut. And the production wore its frailties so flamboyantly and desperately, it was a cinch to anatomize them. But, no, I wasn’t all that pleased to start off with a pan. The theater — the wonderful old Variety Arts, razed 15 years ago — was only a block away from where I lived in the East Village, so I knew that I would be living with the marquee’s reproachful image for however long “Annie Warbucks” ran.

GREEN Frank Rich, the chief theater critic at the time, had been known almost since he took the job in 1980 as the Butcher of Broadway for his scathing reviews of what was admittedly a lot of trash. Producers, and soon the public, believed he could make or kill a show, investing him with huge mythic juju. And when you became chief critic, in 1996, you soon found yourself the subject of a website — Did He Like It? — that hung on your every word. Did that sort of power, perceived or actual, appeal to you?

BRANTLEY Being powerful has never in itself been something I aspired to. I was probably more powerful at Women’s Wear Daily, which had outrageous weight in the fashion industry in those days. So in that sense, again being in a position of perceived power wasn’t all that intimidating. Years later, when I’d become The Times’s chief critic, I ran into Calvin Klein at a party, and when I stepped away, he told the friends I was with: “You don’t understand. He used to be really powerful.”

GREEN Is it important to at least seem powerful and uncompromising in the job, as Frank did?

BRANTLEY Frank had a stentorian voice as a writer, so his criticism delivered an authoritative blast, a quality still evident today. But he wrote a lot of very perceptively mixed reviews (check out his highly ambivalent take on the blockbuster “Cats”); he was less of an absolutist than advertised. What I learned from him was not to worry about my point of view not coinciding with that of the other critics, that it was good and healthy to go against the grain. The main thing, he said, was to make sure that your feelings about a show were loud and clear. I was perhaps guilty of excessive indirection early on, so much so that I briefly acquired the nickname of Gentle Ben in the industry.

GREEN Are there reviews from that period — or even more recently — you wish were louder and clearer?

BRANTLEY Many readers of daily journalism, I learned, often only skim, which means that nuanced arguments can make them impatient. I loathe thumbs-up, thumbs-down criticism, but there is an in-between approach. For the most part, I see no point in training an elephant gun on small targets. And I think it’s important that when you admire a show’s intentions, or its attempts to create something new, that you acknowledge this, no matter how imperfect the execution. Sometimes rawness is a virtue, which was how I felt describing taboo-baiting performance artists like Karen Finley and Ron Athey. With Broadway, where people are paying truckloads of money for tickets, and a corporate bruiser like Disney is behind the production, the gloves can come off. (See: “The Little Mermaid,” “Tarzan.”) Musicals about vampires (“Lestat,” “Dance of the Vampires,” “Dracula”) always seemed to be asking to be annihilated too; they bring out the Van Helsing in critics.

GREEN How quickly were you introduced to — and how long did it take you to make your peace with — the blowback that often results from writing honestly about a show?

BRANTLEY I expected the blowback, and it came pretty quickly. The public put-downs from celebrity stars are to be savored, I think. Interestingly, in my case, the attacks almost always came from white men: James Franco (“Of Mice and Men” — he called me a “little bitch”), Alec Baldwin (“Orphans” — he said I was “not a good writer”), Josh Brolin (“True West” — he just said he hated me in highly charged language though we later made up by email). Then there was my fellow critic John Simon, castigating me for liking “the homosexual play” on Charlie Rose’s show. So often, though, comments would contradict one another — one reader would tell me I was too harsh, another that I was too nice — which just confirmed for me that all responses to art, and to its interpretations, are particular and subjective.

GREEN Given that, do you ever feel bad about something you wrote?

BRANTLEY When I’ve felt bad has been when I’ve hurt someone’s feelings for reasons other than professional criticism. I made a reference to a character in my review of the musical “Head Over Heels” that was perceived as a callous misgendering of a nonbinary performer. In such cases, your intention is irrelevant. You apologize immediately. I did answer an email from someone who couldn’t get over my not liking something he’d written; my response was very polite. But when I announced my resignation from The Times, he went on Twitter to say I regularly showed up at shows drunk and was thrown out of one for making racist comments. Both egregiously untrue statements, but inspiring that kind of vindictiveness reminds you of the impact you can have on the people you write about.

GREEN You mentioned Karen Finley and Ron Athey, whose sexually and politically explicit work made them prime exhibits in the so-called Culture Wars of the 1990s. More recently you have been the leading American booster of the Belarus Free Theater, a dissident company working under unimaginably repressive circumstances in that former Soviet republic. How much has your own politics come into play in choosing what to write about?

BRANTLEY I don’t think my own politics have dictated my choices of what I cover. But I am thrilled when politics and art converge in a way that energizes and rearranges your thoughts, when the form and the message are inseparable. I remember the excitement of my introduction to the Belarus Free Theater, “Being Harold Pinter,” which combined parts of Pinter plays with testimonies from survivors of state torture in Belarus. It made me realize both how radical Pinter always was in his work, in his concerns about abuses of power, and how urgent theater can be as a tool of social reckoning, without turning into propaganda. I think we’re seeing that again now in new works from Black playwrights like Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”), Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”) and Aleshea Harris (“What to Send Up When It Goes Down”).

GREEN Those plays represent the upside of changes that have begun to transform the theater — often with your encouragement — during your tenure at The Times. There are plentiful downsides, too: The commercial sector has become heavily dependent on tourist audiences drawn by visiting celebrities; the nonprofit sector has often followed suit; and as the outlets for criticism have collapsed so has faith in its usefulness. Plus: jukebox musicals. Not to bum you on your way out the door, but how do you add up the pluses and minuses you’ve observed while writing more than 2,500 reviews during 27 years in the hot seat?

BRANTLEY Oh, let’s accentuate the positive, shall we? The roster of shows in the season interrupted by the pandemic showed a breadth of diversity and aspiration in form and content that I found incredibly heartening. “Slave Play” and “Girl From the North Country,” a renegade reimagining of the jukebox musical using the songs of Bob Dylan, on Broadway? I have often complained about the Las Vegas-ization of Broadway during my tenure, but in recent years I’ve seen new signs of life there. When theater comes back, it’s inevitably going to be limping, of course. And I have the feeling we’ll see a gaping dichotomy: the expressly political, expressly inclusive new works, and the brazenly crowd-courting commercial fare. And, yes, Jesse, that will probably include mindless jukebox musicals. But who knows? I’m not going to say “Après moi, le déluge,” because I’m hoping to still be swimming in these troubled waters.

GREEN Then why step down? Surely you’re not tired of writing — you’re a perfectly engineered writing machine!

BRANTLEY No, I’m not tired of writing, or reviewing. My metabolism was made for the binge-and-purge rhythms of daily criticism. But during quarantine, when I couldn’t feed that addiction, I found myself chafing at the place-holding journalism that was required. Then in a Zoom meeting with critics, The Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, lingered over the question of whether arts reviewers should stay in their jobs indefinitely. And I thought, “That sounds like an exit cue to me.” After that, it was a surprisingly painless decision.

GREEN Did you feel any pressure from social media efforts to dislodge you (and other white male critics, like me) from the aisle seat? Do you sympathize with those efforts?

BRANTLEY I do sympathize, and I certainly wasn’t oblivious to those public calls for dismantling the white critical establishment. As much as I may claim artistic objectivity, we are all inexorably trapped in the shells of our race, class, gender and generation. So if my departure opens the door to new perspectives from more diverse sets of eyes, so much the better.

GREEN What about your own eyes? Even if you aren’t writing reviews will you still see as many shows as always?

BRANTLEY I’ll go as much as I can afford to.

GREEN And you won’t miss the perks and paraphernalia of the job? If I enter a theater without a notebook I feel naked. Let alone the seats! Can you even sit in one that’s not J-101?

BRANTLEY There’s a part of me that’s looking forward to attending as a civilian, even one who inhabits the peanut gallery. But once a critic, always a critic. There’ll always be a phantom notebook in my lap.

Best Dramatic Performance

Mark Rylance, in “Jerusalem” and “Twelfth Night,” and Kate Valk in anything from the Wooster Group

Best Musical Performance

A three-way tie: Christine Ebersole in “Grey Gardens,” Audra McDonald in “Porgy and Bess” and Donna Murphy in “Wonderful Town

Best Play

A tie between two dangerous works: Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” and Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog

Best Musical

Hamilton

Worst Play

Going way back, John Pielmeier’s “Voices in the Dark,” a woman-in-jeopardy, cannibal-stew “thrill-free thriller” from 1999

Worst Musical

In My Life,” the 2005 Joseph Brooks fantasia featuring a giant lemon, a glam rock angel and a hero with a brain tumor and Tourette’s syndrome

Most Memorable Design

Bunny Christie’s for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Most Succulent Hams

Patti LuPone and Frank Langella

Your Weirdest Review

My simultaneously declaring my love for and panning Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain

Best Review by You

I probably felt most inspired when I was writing about contemporary Irish playwrights, for some reason, so anything by me on Conor McPherson or Martin McDonagh, or Brian Friel or Enda Walsh. I also really enjoyed explaining why I liked the downtown auteur Richard Maxwell.

Best Review of You

Your review this morning made me very happy.” — Edward Albee in a letter, after I wrote for the first time about his plays in The Times. Runner-up: “He’s a lot cuter in person!” — Rosie O’Donnell

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