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The Critics
  • The Critics

Jim Sikora's The Critics, which opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center, could be the most exhaustively, some might say incestuously, documented movie in the history of the Reader. Back in 1996, when Adam Langer was still writing theater criticism for the paper, he published a profile of Sikora as the latter was making his movie Bullet on a Wire. Two years later, Langer wrote and directed the stage version of The Critics, which was loosely based on his experiences writing for the Reader. Shortly thereafter, Sikora adapted the play to the screen, casting the original players from the Chicago Dramatists production. Last year Ed M. Koziarski wrote a follow-up profile of Sikora, which noted that, after ten years, the filmmaker was finally editing The Critics for release, and this week Langer contributes a reminiscence prompted by the film's premiere.

You can read my capsule review of the movie here, but for my money, the final word on the whole enterprise should be Albert Williams's review of the original play, which serves equally well as a review of the movie and is excerpted below. I imagine that, at this point, a final word would be most welcome.

"Adam Langer is a theatrical veteran—a regular critic for the Reader and the author of several plays, including The Blank Page, a satire of the alternative media suggested by Langer's stint as editor of the defunct SubNation magazine, and Film Flam, a parody of the indie film industry inspired by Langer's experiences turning The Blank Page into a movie. Langer's got a knack for cutting quips, and The Critics—about a group of theater reviewers for an alternative weekly in Chicago—unleashes an acid rainstorm of them. Viewers with a taste for Langer's brand of well-phrased waspishness may find this new play very funny, especially if they're knowledgeable enough to get the in-jokes and theatrical references. But The Critics has little to do with the real state of theater, theater criticism, or the alternative press in Chicago, and its caricatures and flip facade undercut the playwright's serious concerns about theater and literature.

"Five writers for 'New Void' magazine have been summoned to a meeting by the publication's tense, tough editor, Jill, who reveals that a new play, titled 'Before Swine,' has come to her attention: the pseudonymous script contains barely concealed portraits of the critics and the rag they write for. The author, Jill maintains, is one of them; determined to find out who the culprit is, she reads the script aloud while the critics portray their surrogate selves in the play-within-the-play. Forget six characters in search of an author; this is six characters in search of the author.

"Langer's Pirandellian put-on works as a vehicle for his mischievous, sometimes malevolent caricatures of the critics as vindictive frumps who spend most of their time together insulting one another. (Of course the notion of critics actually gathering for meetings and bringing their copy into the office is woefully outdated in this age of E-mail.) Dennis is a middle-aged queen who gave up playwriting after the failure of his nine-hour update of Wagner's Ring Cycle set during the 1968 Prague Spring. The much younger Arthur is also a playwright, but he's been suffering from writer's block ever since his confessional drama 'The Misfit of Briar Place' was panned by his colleague Blair, a gay North Shore trust-fund baby with aspirations to be an actor. Hecht is a flaky would-be entrepreneur who dreams of running a doughnut shop; he, too, tried his hand at writing for the stage, but his falafel-stand musical 'Trouble in Tahini' went nowhere. The only woman, Sheila, is also the only one of the bunch who's a critic exclusively; she derides her companions' outside activities while compulsively clipping, collecting, and dissecting their reviews. Sheila, someone says, is so obsessed with the theater 'that if the theater was a human being, it would certainly have to obtain a restraining order against her.'

"Without revealing the solution to the mystery (which becomes pretty obvious long before the denouement anyway), suffice it to say that Jill finally fires the lot of them. 'Theater is dead,' she declares. 'Nobody goes. Nobody reads [reviews]. Nobody advertises.' Then she sort of rehires Sheila, who makes a climactic speech lambasting reviewers who pooh-pooh struggling, obscure off-off-Loop shows while paying obeisance to 'all the theaters in the city with their streams of safe, pointless revivals and meaningless adaptations [and] musicals that don't make you think about anything.' It's somewhat unclear whether Langer is merely sniping that women stick together or saying that Sheila's passion makes her the only one worthy to remain a critic—'an institution with dignity,' Sheila insists, despite the indignities Langer has heaped on his characters. The confusion arises from his ambivalence about the subject: he spends most of the play parodying critics as failures and flakes who hate theater because they couldn't succeed in it ('Criticism is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent masturbation,' says Blair), then shifts into reverse with an epilogue demonstrating that theater criticism comes from an impulse as creative—and destructive—as that driving any art form.

"Like Seven Dates With Seven Writers, this play has great fun with its caricatures. Langer borrows a few tics and traits from real-life critics—including himself—and distributes them promiscuously among his characters to exaggerated comic effect. No one here bears any strong resemblance to recognizable local journalists; still, playwrights, actors, and directors prone to nursing grudges over bad reviews may find its venom a sweet tonic. Theater buffs may also enjoy Langer's clever allusions to and parodies of Mamet, Sondheim, Albee, William Mastrosimone, John Patrick Shanley, and Simon Gray—as well as Tom Stoppard, whose comedy The Real Inspector Hound concerns a pair of theater critics drawn into the alternate world of the whodunit they're reviewing.

"As director, Langer supports the material with a lean, low-budget production using simple but effective lighting to shift between the play's double realities, and his well-chosen cast—Mary Beth McMahon as Jill, Jim Donovan as Dennis, Mark Vanasse as Arthur, Maht Wells as Blair, James Wm. Joseph as Hecht, and Juliet Schaefer as Sheila—imbue their roles with crisp, high-stakes energy. (Donovan's perpetual peevishness as Dennis and Vanasse's air of paralyzed panic as Arthur are especially funny.)

"Missing, however, is any serious effort to probe the real craft of theater and theater criticism—or even the real circumstances of critics' lives. Some reviewers are indeed part-time playwrights or actors or directors, but others work as teachers, AIDS caseworkers, foundation staffers—hell, I know one who quit to become a rabbi. Some critics find their real calling in other fields; others find their calling as critics after trying other professions; others shift back and forth as their personalities evolve over the years. This is called real life, and there's far too little of it in this amusingly bitchy but distressingly shallow comedy."