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April 13, 2010

Seeing Through the Performance to the Play Underneath

This is the most essential sentence in Los Angeles Times theater critic and 2010 Pulitzer Prize drama jury chair Charles McNulty's brilliant broadside against the Pulitzer board for its shameful habit of tinkering with the drama prize: "Too bad the board doesn't have members who are better able to distinguish the merits of a production from the merits of a dramatic work."

Exactly, exactly, exactly. Theater is a collaborative art form, but the drama prize is awarded to playwrights, composers, book writers, lyricists: the people who write the work. If you can't tell the difference between what's on the page and what's on the stage, then you have no business ignoring the advice of people who can. The Pulitzer board has never given the slightest indication that it's in possession of this skill.

Surely every playwright has been foiled by an actor or director or designer's misunderstanding of the text, or inability to communicate it; that happens to Shakespeare every day of the week, and has for hundreds of years. Lucky for him, we don't base our estimation of him on the countless god-awful productions of his work. But even Shakespeare's plays can be elevated in production beyond what's written. That's part of the beauty of theater. A good drama critic, like anyone else steeped in the art, can see through the performance to the play underneath.

Also important in McNulty's piece: Although he praises "Next to Normal," he calls "its understanding of mental illness simplistic." This year's Pulitzer winner is arguably entertaining (not in my opinion; the box office begs to differ) -- but truthful, dramatically or otherwise? Hardly.

April 13, 2010 12:02 PM | | Comments (0)

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