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Archive for June 20th, 2012

Hilton Als hates Nathan Lane. And right now you’re probably saying “Who?” To clarify, Hilton Als is one of the theatre critics for The New Yorker. Nathan Lane is the actor, probably best known for playing Max in The Producers and Albert in the movie version of The Birdcage. Lane has also appeared in lots of television shows like Modern Family and 30 Rock. But every time he appears on stage, Als torpedoes him.

Lane’s latest role is the lead in The Iceman Cometh, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Although Als likes the production and heaps praise on everybody else in the play, he claims that Lane is incapable of performing the central role and comes off as a male Ethel Merman. It’s an extremely harsh review, but it’s not the first time Als has gone after Lane. He called his performance as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo superficial and also accused him of ruining a production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs by rewriting it to match “his monstrous ego.” Basically, anything Lane does, Als will despise. He simply doesn’t like the man.

To me, this raises a larger question: If Als despises everything Lane does, should Als go on reviewing Lane’s performances? Is that fair to Lane? Is it fair to the other people in the plays where Lane takes the lead? If a critic absolutely can’t stand an artist, should that critic go on reviewing the artist’s work?

This question has a larger application than Als and Lane. I’ve heard authors moan that certain reviewers always slam their books. One friend wondered why a particular reviewer went on reading her stuff since said reviewer had never liked anything she’d written. There’s more than authorial sour grapes in that observation. While I can understand a reviewer disliking one book by an author and then trying another to see if the author does a better job, after several books it should be obvious that the reviewer and the author simply aren’t a good fit. Should the critic go on reviewing the author or move on to somebody else?

After a certain point, a review can become little more than an ego trip. A reviewer who, say, listens to the latest Miley Cyrus album for the sole purpose of writing a snarky review about how lame Miley Cyrus is really needs to find a better use for her time. She’s not trying to give an honest evaluation of Cyrus’s music, she’s having a good time at Cyrus’s expense.

I guess the bottom line here is the question of how a critic should approach an artist’s work. If a critic goes into a book or a play or a movie knowing only too well that she’s going to hate it, that’s not only unfair, it’s silly. As consumers, most of us will avoid artists whose work we know we dislike. Shouldn’t critics behave in the same way?

It’s one thing to give an artist a second chance. It’s another to write a review with the intention of slapping an artist around because you don’t like him. All of which is to say the next time Nathan Lane has a production opening on Broadway, I hope Hilton Als will take the night off.

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