In the high-stakes, cutthroat world of New York commercial theater, critics can easily develop a wariness, a serrated edge of irony, a tinge of paranoia and cynicism. And who can blame them? It goes with the territory.
But what a pleasure it always was for me, when making the trek from Seattle to the Broadway eye of the storm, to run into the beaming, jocular and witty Michael Kuchwara, longtime theater critic for The Associated Press.
An unfailingly pleasant fellow, with a twinkling smile and always a kind word and a witty aside to share with a colleague, Mike was one of a nearly extinct breed of (pardon the gender bias) Gentleman Critics. Meaning: a pen-wielding mensch, who came up through the journalistic ranks. A man who genuinely loved his job, and the theater, who called them as he saw them, and cultivated no aura of self-importance or condescension. A warmly respected colleague, who at one time chaired the New York Drama Critics' Circle.
Mike passed away on May 22, after a short, lethal bout of lung disease, leaving behind his wife of 35 years, Jonnie, and a sister, Pat Henley. He was attending shows and writing about them until just weeks before his death, and I had no idea that this veteran journalist, who logged some 200 shows a year (from Broadway extravaganzas to experimental Off Off Broadway fare), had been seriously ill until I heard the sad news of his passing.
A 40-year reporter and editor for the AP, Mike had a lifelong passion for theater that won him the post of national stage critic in 1984. His combined readership was enormous; arguably, he was the most influential reviewer in the country.
Mike was one of my models, because he wrote so well for a general readership. His reviews (which ran in newspapers and on websites around the country, and the world) were crisp, cogent, clever, accessible to all. He didn't dilute or dumb down what he had to say. Moreover, he was receptive, open-minded -- a generalist with no axe to grind, but decades of watchful and analytical stage experiences to draw from.
As a Gentleman Critic, he was also inclined to be generous to the artists he reviewed. He wrote his share of pans, but didn't rake actors and writers over the coals or view disappointing art as a federal offense. He wanted to like what he saw, and had the ability to highlight what was worthwhile in a show -- while incisively identifying the flaws also. And when he was enthusiastic, he marveled without gushing.
One reason Mike was so good at his job, in my view, was his long, deep training as a journalist. The skills of observation, questioning and fact-finding that shape any good newspaper reporter are embedded in his work, along with a snappy, highly readable style designed to hook you over your morning coffee.
Can the current, younger generation of blogger drama critics, without journalistic backgrounds, cultivate some of these same qualities? Let's believe some will, rather than settling only for spewing opinion.
A new theater critic for the AP has not been named yet, but I have a suggestion for those doing the hiring. There will never be another Kuchwara, certainly. But appointing another Gentleman (or Gentlewoman) Critic would be a fine tribute to his memory -- and a boon to readers.
Misha Berson, The Seattle Times' theater and arts critic, was an NAJP fellow in 1997-98.