To the editor:
I wasn't too taken aback to read theater editor Albert Williams disagreeing with Justin Hayford's original unfavorable review [Section Two, May 29] of Famous Door's show Beautiful Thing (Critic's Choice 6/12/98), accusing Justin (not by name) of being a "political doctrinaire" who "misses the point" of a "tender, funny tale" for his attempt to place the production, with disapproval, into a larger social context. (I know nearly every reviewer in town except Justin liked it. So?) Chicago critics should jump each other in print more often; it helps keep everyone honest. It was a bit more disappointing to see Albert trump Justin by not only giving Beautiful Thing a coveted Critic's Choice, but by peremptorily placing it on the even more valuable Short List. (I recall the occasional production getting upgraded in the Reader, though usually upon revival or personnel change.) Albert stepped outside propriety, though, when he replaced the capsule pull-quote from Justin's review with "See Critic's Choice"--effectively eradicating Justin's opinion from the paper.
It makes a difference, is akin to Jann Wenner rereviewing a big-timer's album (in the lead slot) that he thought was insufficiently praised in Rolling Stone. Albert is editor of the theater section. Thorough summaries of his reviews live on in the capsule listings as anonymous-voice "official positions," while other reviewers' work is excerpted, qualified by quotation marks and attribution. If I were one of those freelancers, I'd consider getting my opinions--at least those on companies and topics Albert's known to care about--preapproved, lest they be vetoed.
Besides the abuse of position, I disagree with Albert on his premise--whatever good qualities Beautiful Thing has. I've wished Justin would devote less wordage to a show's sociopolitical resonance and more to what happened on the stage (especially the acting), but it doesn't take a doctrinaire to see Beautiful Thing as part of--albeit a well-written part of--the theatrical tradition of romanticized diminuatization of gay male lives. Even the title tells you it won't be a confrontative night out. (Indeed, I bet that sweetness provided some motive for the usually daring, now homeless Famous Door choosing to produce it; that, and the urge to show up the troupe that took their home on its own thematic turf. Famous Door was hardly known for gay theater, until now.) Finally, it never "misses the point" to take into account the audience to whom a show is addressed: the Reader's best critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, the only one (I think) with a national reputation, does just that week after week. It's one of the main contributions of thought that separates a critic from a consumer guide.
Albert Williams replies:
Martin missed my point about Beautiful Thing's intended audience--which is that the play is aimed at bringing people together (as I said) rather than dividing them into political categories of gay or straight.