Here is the difference a few extra travel-expense dollars can make when it comes to how Chicago theater critics tackle big-ticket shows.
On November 26, a review by Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times raved about a stirring new production of Annie at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora: "While the New York revival of 'Annie' appears to have fallen rather flat, the Paramount edition . . . has revealed the show's true genius."
Unfortunately for Weiss, the lackluster critical reaction to the New York show that she alluded to included her competitor's. As Chris Jones said in his Tribune review of the Paramount's Annie, published the same day as Weiss's: "When I say the Aurora 'Annie' is, on balance, better than the current Broadway 'Annie' . . . I am not relying on distant memory. I just saw the New York production a couple of weeks ago." He'd reviewed the New York production for the Trib, too.
I've known Jones since he was a second-string Tribune critic freelancing for Variety on the side, and he's always been willing to work himself into a lather. But after he became the Tribune's top theater critic in 2006, his inexhaustibility took a showy turn. I'd often spot in the same edition of the Tribune his review of a new Chicago show and another review datelined New York. The man was everywhere!
"It looks like you're at a show the same night in both cities," he says, "but essentially with [the opening night of] a Broadway show you'll be able to see any one of the three to five preceding performances, and everybody holds their review. So you can whip back, get to a Chicago show the same night [as opening night in New York]. With Chicago shows, if you say 'can I come to a preview?' usually they say yes in the end but they're never pleased, and I try to avoid it."
So how often does Jones pull this stunt of showing up in both cities in the same issue of the paper?
"Let me think. Almost every time I review a Broadway show there's a Chicago review the same day. So it's 20 to 30 times a year."
Props to the Tribune for footing the bill for Jones's ubiquity. "The New York stuff is important to me partly because so much from Chicago goes there," he explains. "It's interesting—almost everything that's good comes from Chicago. But that's not the main reason you like to go. Otherwise you get parochial as a critic. So I've always made the case that unless you go and see shows there, you don't know what you're talking about when they come here."
In addition to being the Tribune's man in two cities, Jones recently launched what he calls a "Frank Rich-y type column" in the Sunday arts section, his chance to "get away from the reviewing grind."
A recent column found Jones drawing a comparison between General David Petraeus and Othello for having thrown away a distinguished career in a fit of irrational passion. Jones didn't leave it at that. Given the secondary roles played in the Petraeus drama—not only by Paula Broadwell but also by Jill Kelley, her twin sister Natalie Khawam, and General John Allen—perhaps a better Shakespearean touchstone, Jones mused, was A Comedy of Errors, where the apt question is raised, "How many fond fools serve mad jealousy?"
Another Sunday, Jones recalled growing up in England in the 70s as a faithful viewer of "the ebullient British television personality Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, aka Jimmy Savile, now unmasked, one year after his death, as one of the most notorious sex offenders in British history." Savile "was like a favorite uncle, much cooler than your parents and with the ability to solve anything. I remember contrasting him with my own uncle who, it seems, could not fix anything, including himself."
I remind Jones that Frank Rich took on his Sunday op-ed duties at the New York Times only after stepping down as drama critic. "Those were different times and a different place," Jones replies. When Jones wraps up a Sunday essay, back to the reviewing grind he goes.
With rare exceptions, Jones reviews every Equity show that opens in Chicago, and much more besides. By his estimate, he sees easily 250 shows a year, "the vast majority in Chicago." But the New York reviews are disproportionately important, which is why he insists that his review of a new Broadway show runs the same day the New York papers run theirs. "They're no good a week late," Jones says. "So where you could go and see five shows in New York over a leisurely week, I go for the night and come back. It's cost effective too. Because the air fare's cheaper than an actual hotel."
He goes on, "God knows, you've got to make yourself count now, and the only way is to be there. What I'm really saying is that opinion from Chicago has to matter in New York, and that makes the city more central in the plans of New York producers who may or may not bring their show here."
And if Chicago opinion is essentially Chris Jones's opinion, his job at the Tribune becomes that much more secure.
I say as much.
"Who's secure?" he laughs. "I'm lucky in that Dick Christiansen [the drama critic before Jones's immediate predecessor, Michael Phillips, who's now the Tribune's movie critic] made theater very important in the Chicago Tribune. And that beat is supported ad-revenue-wise by those theaters. So it's a theater town at the end of the day, and the paper has always gotten that."
Jones and his wife, Gillian (in January she becomes CEO of the Polk Brothers Foundation), have two sons, seven and nine. He says, "I take them to school and then I usually come downtown and spend the day [at the Tribune] and then I go home and cook dinner for everybody—I do pretty good British food, as you might expect. And then I leave; I go to the show." He says the children are still young enough that they're going to bed when he's walking out the front door.
"I'm not saying I want to do this forever, by the way. It's very arduous, and there are some prices you pay in your personal life. I have this great job, but it's not easy. I'm not whining. I recognize this is a glamorous job in a lot of people's eyes. But you never get a weekend off. And another thing about Chicago—there's a more complex set of relationships with people you cover. New York is big enough that it can be very separate. But where I live in Evanston three directors live very near me. My kids go to school with their kids. Not in the same class, thank God."
To make matters worse, the Tribune expects Jones to cover the drama beat—something New York Times critics don't do. "To report you have to have sources," Jones explains. "So you have to get relatively close to people. And at other times you're reviewing their shows." Avoiding that conflict is more virtue than the Tribune can afford.
An impropriety can be a lot harder to bear than an outsize workload, but Jones insists on his virtue. "I swear that I try to put any and all personal considerations aside and just speak the total truth about what I am seeing, regardless," he tells me. "I am consumed by the need for fairness."