In “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, there’s a biting line about people who do what I have done for most of the past 30 years. It goes like this: “Frankie, tell Aunt Mary how many kids in your class say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a drama critic.’”
The answer, of course, is nobody. Drama critic is an occupation that just sort of happens to a person. At least, that’s how it happened to me. I was minding my own business as a reporter covering Broadway for the New York Times when the culture department editor, John Darnton, asked me if I knew anyone who could fill the vacant second theater critic’s chair. “How about you?” he said, a proposition I had never considered, let alone encouraged.
That was 1996. As 2024 approaches, I find myself asking a variation of the question. How about this uniquely rewarding job that I am stepping down from on Dec. 31? I’ve written I don’t know how many reviews, first for the Times and then, for the past 21 years, for The Washington Post; profiled I don’t know how many actors, directors, playwrights, producers; composed I don’t know how many essays and process pieces; enraged, delighted, irritated, amused I don’t know how many readers. And now at the finale, as I say goodbye to my post at The Post, I feel like a character in an existential play by Tom Stoppard: relinquishing an endangered job in a struggling business that covers a gasping industry.
You may not have noticed that the number of theater critics at daily newspapers in this country with secure financial lives — company health plans and full-time reviewing gigs — is down to a precious few. I have been the only one in Washington for some time; if there are 10 nationally, I’d be surprised. This is not occurring in a vacuum. The stock market may be rebounding of late, but we as a society have been devaluing our performing arts culture for years. Theater in particular, the art form I fell in love with at the age of 5, when my mother took me to see Mary Martin on Broadway in “The Sound of Music,” is in post-pandemic peril, coping with declines in attendance and self-confidence.
Theater people comprise a tribe that thrives on drama. (After devoting more than a third of my life to writing about theater, I’m inducting myself as a fellow traveler.) Reflexively, we in the theater forever see disaster looming — and for the sake of narrative tension, often just before intermission. I can’t begin to untangle the necklace of issues, regarding cost and content, innovation and inspiration, that hangs on the next generation of theater artists, leaders and journalists. But it’s worth noting that just three months ago, leaders of the nation’s leading nonprofit theaters traveled to Capitol Hill to plead for $2.5 billion in federal aid over the next five years to help stem the bloodletting that is causing two or three theater companies to die every month.
My fervent hope is that this is indeed just a turbulent intermission in the evolution of a discipline that has been astonishing people since the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus. And that the collective energy in this dazzling field is marshaled in the cause of better serving the art and the audience. For this to happen, the theater needs more analysis, more debate, more audacious opining, not less. As part of that invigoration, it needs a healthy coterie of passionate skeptics, ironists, scholars and true believers to write about it. Also known as critics.
It’s mind-boggling how much theater a daily newspaper critic reviews. I’m not sure anyone was ever meant to be this entertained. In stretches during my tenure, I’ve been in an aisle seat on as many as 15 consecutive nights — and on some weekends, for as many as six productions. (Don’t try doing the math.) I call myself a professional member of the audience and, as such, qualified on some occasions for combat pay: I’ve had actors plop themselves in my lap (that’s you, “Hair’s” Will Swenson) and monologists come to my seat, grab my pen and toss it across the theater (identity withheld because all is forgiven). I’ve attended shows at which I was the sole member of the audience (there’s nothing hollower than the sound of one person clapping) and one-person shows at which the performer ran off in a panic, failing to return for the second act.
I’ve had my share of harassment and threats, on social media and via email. One time a famous actress, upset with something I’d written, told me through her publicist to “lay low for a while.” (What?) Also, I once had a theatergoer vomit on me midway through a play by George Bernard Shaw. I maintain to this day that it wasn’t personal.
For the most part, though, being a theater critic has been an extraordinary privilege. How many people have the opportunity to be transported by an actor’s performance or a playwright’s words or a composer’s music, and then be able to do something about it? A critic’s catharsis comes not in wielding a dagger, but in lending literary support to someone destined to give audiences pleasure. It’s a selfish impulse, at heart: like a glutton at mealtime, I always want more.
When I arrived in Washington in 2002, my appetite was for doing what I could to elevate the reputation of the capital city as a theater town. I’d come from New York, where theater is all but a blood sport; in D.C., it was a gentler though no less serious activity. One of my first revelations was the thickness of mainstay actors’ stage muscles, toughened by appearances in four or more shows a year. I got to know them intimately through their work: Nancy Robinette, Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen, Donna Migliaccio, Holly Twyford, Kimberly Gilbert, Sarah Marshall, Tom Story, Craig Wallace, Ed Gero, Rick Foucheux, Nicholas Rodriguez, Jennifer Mendenhall, Bobby Smith, Will Gartshore, Stephen Gregory Smith, Naomi Jacobson. (Do Todd Scofield or Caroline Stefanie Clay ever give anything but superb performances?)
Then others through the years: Jon Hudson Odom, Shannon Dorsey, Aubrey Deeker, Natascia Diaz, Maria Rizzo, Justin Weaks, Megan Graves, Erin Weaver, Felicia Curry, Jake Loewenthal. Ian Merrill Peakes and Patrick Page ignited the classics. Nova Y. Payton and Awa Sal Secka tore your heart out in song.
Best productions? Oh heavens, don’t make me pick. It’s the one-of-a-kinds that loom large in memory, the unique creative acts that define the vibrancy of a city’s imaginative output: Natsu Onoda Power’s “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” at Studio Theatre; Aaron Posner’s “Measure for Measure” at the Folger, playwright Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” at Woolly Mammoth, Theater J’s “Return to Haifa,” Signature Theatre’s “Glory Days” (which later bombed on Broadway but I liked it, so sue me), Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili’s “Host and Guest” for Synetic.
As time went on, and The Post positioned itself with ever more determination as an outlet with global ambitions, our readership and my beat turned more national; Broadway inevitably became more central to understanding popular theatrical entertainment. And as I sensed a troubling decline of public interest in what happens in the theater, I sought to expand the boundaries of the job. I wanted readers to see theater in the pageantry of politics; in the kinds of live performance loved by people in the heartland; in the growing threat opposition to artistic freedom poses for writers and performers.
I didn’t get to all the stories I wanted to write, particularly as they reflected the thoughts of my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. “Drama’s Vitallest Expression,” she wrote, “is the Common Day/ That arise and set about Us.” I had hoped to say more about drama in unlikely places — like at a remarkable Starbucks on H Street NE, run entirely by deaf baristas. There, the choreography of cappuccino is conducted in silence, through signed and handwritten orders. Watching it, you are invited to experience the world in another language, an impromptu drama of the common day.
I hope to keep finding examples of the vitallest expression, onstage and off — and even writing about them. In the meantime, I wanted to say thanks for reading the work of a guy who didn’t grow up thinking he’d ever be a drama critic.