Last week was not the first time I’ve been puzzled by Hilton Als’s writing on theatre.
I didn’t understand the rather cruel rationale by which he described the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein as follows, in a capsule review of Julie Salomon’s biography of Wasserstein:
Wendy Wasserstein was the kind of woman many women didn’t feel comfortable befriending, especially since she was what they feared being themselves: overweight, single, and a fag hag.
I was stumped when Als, wrote the following about Annie Baker, in reviewing her play John.
Baker has produced only one play about a woman’s life, and it was a one-act comedy, a relative trifle compared with her other work. Sometimes, it has been difficult to distinguish between Baker’s world of guys and her own ethos.
What about Circle Mirror Transformation? Is it explicitly about one woman’s life? No, not necessarily singularly, but do her plays genuinely warrant this characterization of them by Als? Are they collectively, in Als’s shorthand, “dude fugues”?
Baker projects her complicated, sometimes disappointing, but never less than human relationship to men, who interest her because they display their competitiveness more readily and openly, and thus more theatrically, than women do.
Interestingly, the review of John, in which Als felt that Baker was at last engaging fully with female characters, seemed focused on the naturalistic interaction of the characters, three out of four of whom are women. But he does make a generalization, suggesting that one or more of them may be “crazy,” a timeworn dismissal of women’s behavior. He does so without ever engaging with the play’s strong supernatural elements, which are almost impossible to overlook when we find one character reading H.P. Lovecraft to another, subverting the motivations and altering our perceptions of the characters and events as played on the surface. Indeed, we are to understand that the character who initially seems most unmoored from reality is in fact the most perceptive, not a madwoman.
So what has me – and based upon what I’ve seen on social media, many others – rather frustrated with Als now? It’s his review of The New Group’s Sweet Charity, which goes out of its way to critique not only director Leigh Silverman’s work on the revival itself, but her body of work as a director and perhaps even her personal attributes. It’s certainly fair for a critic to do much of that (reviewing people as opposed to their work, however, strikes me as unwarranted) – and to be clear, Als absolutely has the right to write about the theatre as he sees fit – but it’s the apparently gendered critique of Silverman, in a way that seems to overwhelm actually engaging with The New Group’s Sweet Charity itself, that’s striking many as problematic.
At this point I should acknowledge that as a cisgender, heterosexual middle-aged white man, I am perhaps singularly unqualified to weigh in on this subject, given my identity and the identities of the parties involved. If any readers feel that’s the case, I would urge them to stop reading this now. They might wish to consider an essay by Victoria Myers at The Interval (worth reading even if you choose to read on here), the most sustained, non-Facebook piece prompted by Als’s review that I’ve seen to date.
In the very first paragraph of his Sweet Charity review, Als writes, in reference to Silverman:
The problem is that she’s too serious about theatre; she wants her shows to count—to have a moral purpose. Sometimes a play is just a play, and not all of her productions can bear the weight of her imperative.
He goes on to refer to her “joyless directorial form” when she directed a piece for The Five Lesbian Brothers. He describes thinking of her as “downtown’s ‘woman’s director,’ in the old M-G-M George Cukor sense of the phrase.” He characterizes her work on Charity as having “very little shine or imagination” He compares her unfavorably to the director and choreographer of the original production, writing, “Silverman’s moral stance is different from Fosse’s. She’s not excited by display; she keeps things small, somehow.” He concludes by saying that like the show’s character, Oscar, who dumps the character of Charity at the very moment other shows would deploy as happy ending, “Silverman may have been driven by the same impulses: instead of trusting in and directing the flow of Foster’s natural wellspring of talent, she set out to dam it.”
So Silverman is, in Als’s view, a woman who is far too serious about her work and should just lighten up; in every way inferior to the man who originally conceived, directed and choreographed Charity; generally yet mysteriously reductive; and someone whom actors (those who, given his examples, are other more exuberant women) have to fight past in order to give engaging performances.
But while idolizing Bob Fosse (and Sutton Foster), Als doesn’t explicate what Silverman has actually done with Charity, a 50-year-old relic of an era when entertainment was frequently trapped in telling stories where women fell only along the virgin-whore duality. That was certainly evident in Charity’s source material, the film Nights of Cabiria.
How do we engage with this type of material now? Do we, to employ Als’s metaphor, admire them as eternal soap bubbles or, as so many works of entertainment now do, mine them for a grittier take, which rather than blowing ash upon works, strips them of their glitzy patina to better engage with the reality that might lie underneath? Certainly taking a darker view is not only a man’s right. Silverman has even made small revisions to the work, which go unremarked upon.
Broadway’s last Sweet Charity played out in pop colors along more Fosse-esque lines, though I recall Oscar’s rejection of Charity at the show’s end, in Denis O’Hare’s performance, as particularly ugly and cruel. In Silverman and Shuler Hensley’s hands, it seemed a genuine expression of personal failing, filled with regret. Both are perfectly valid readings of the script, which while written by the hugely successful Neil Simon, has become dated in the half-century since it debuted. It is hard to find Charity’s repeated humiliations as funny, as they were once intended to be. While my memory of O’Hare’s performance in contrast to Hensley’s is inevitably subjective, I’m intrigued that its dissonant harshness has stuck with me for 11 years, while my most recent experience seemed rueful and compassionate.
During an interlude from assailing Silverman, Als notes in his review the age of Sutton Foster, a relatively atypical critical practice, and it seems an arbitrary choice. It would be more pertinent had he connected it to his description of Charity as a “youngish girl.” In fact, Foster is the same age as Gwen Verdon when she created the role. While she reads as eternally youthful (the basis for her TV series Younger), a key element of Charity’s character, then as now, is that, in the time and society in which the show is set, the character is decidedly not youngish, with essential implications for the character’s motivations, and how we perceive them against the typical expectation of women in the 1960s. That Foster and Silverman chose to address that element is not diminishing Foster under Silverman’s cloak of darkness, but rather an actor and director working in concert to mine truth from what the text offers them.
That seems to be the operant motivation for Als’s critique – Silverman is denying the charm of the piece, and of the leading lady. But The New Group itself is noted for a repertoire that explores dark stories and ugly truths; that they were producing Sweet Charity seemed a dissonant concept when first announced. In fact, the concept that Silverman and Foster brought to the company (instead of Silverman simply being “hired,” in Als’s assumption) was in keeping with artistic director Scott Elliot’s aesthetic – and an experiment more reasonably undertaken in a 222-seat venue than a 1500 seat Broadway house. Has Charity been reduced, shrunken, made small, as Als would have it, or has it been made more intimate, more human, less razzle-dazzle in service of character and storytelling? Even before entering the theatre, all signs pointed to the latter, lest anyone be confused about intent.
To reiterate: Als is welcome to his opinion, as we all are. But as a critic, he repeatedly denigrates Silverman for ostensibly applying the same aesthetic to all of her work because she had the effrontery to tamper with Sweet Charity. He categorizes Silverman as a downtown women’s director, an implied pejorative, yet beyond a fleeting mention of her Broadway debut with Well, fails to acknowledge her “uptown” work, with three Broadway shows to date, which is unfortunately a rare achievement for any woman – or her ongoing collaboration with David Henry Hwang.
Instead of analyzing the choices Silverman made in Charity, he attempted to divine her motivation. Als tells readers of his disappointment with the show not being what he wanted it to be, rather than interpreting it according to what was there. Even in a much-reduced cast, why did Silverman choose to have Joel Perez essay all of the main male roles other than Oscar? Is it possible that Silverman was looking at male mores of the time and seeing a sameness that she wanted to emphasize? In reading Als’s review, we don’t even know that Perez plays multiple roles. The fundamentals of reviewing are made subordinate to an agenda.
At the start, I cited some examples of Als’s writing that I’ve found surprising. I have not conducted a years-long study of his work, and certainly his recent review covering both Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World displays none of the implied gender bias of his Sweet Charity review. So this is no blanket assertion of his motivations or beliefs, but simply an attempt to explore, overall, one piece of writing that has proven troubling to so many, including artists I admire. With Sweet Charity, Als – with guidance from his editors – could have critiqued the show, and Leigh Silverman’s work on the show, in a way that would have allowed readers to better understand the production on its own terms, rather than as a platform for his seemingly gendered survey of Leigh Silverman as a person.