Horribly Awesome, Charmingly Gruesome, One for the Ages

I have never been overly concerned with reviews. I remember my first play, Vikings, opening at the Manhattan Theatre Club in what was certainly a less than stellar production and the critic for the New York Times, Frank Rich, pretty much tearing both me and the theatre a new asshole for even thinking it should be on stage. And I sort of agreed with him. I called up my agent at the time, the chain smoking, Bronx voiced Esther Sherman and asked if she was doing okay. “I’m supposed to be asking you that,” she said. Oddly enough I was. I was in the arena, I was striving, doing my best. I felt – hey, I haven’t seen any of your plays done Off-Broadway lately. And finally, I was aware that if I was going to take good reviews seriously, I was going to have to take bad reviews seriously. Better to ignore them all.
(This last edict actually turned out not to be the case. To this day, I take good reviews very seriously and consider the reviewing critic a genius. I ignore bad reviews and always consider the source an ignoramus. I feel the same way about dramaturges and executive producers. Kidding but not really.)

My next play, Strange Snow, also done at the Manhattan Theatre Club, was a wonderful experience. Standing ovations every night (which weren’t so standard back then). And yet, Frank Rich was tepid about it. And I discovered it didn’t really matter. Yes, a good review from him might have moved the play into a commercial production, but his lukewarm reaction didn’t take away my pride and sense of accomplishment in the work. It was my review that mattered. I’ve tried to make that the case ever since. And I have to admit I’m a tough critic when it comes to my own work.

At the end of the day, reviews of plays are a matter of opinion and today word of mouth and social media spreads that opinion much better and faster than newspaper print. As a playwright, it took me awhile to realize it but plays are also very much dependent on the production. Classics can be turned into roast beef hash in the wrong hands. Plays you don’t like or think will work can sing when the right people get involved. At the end of the day, a playwright builds a house. Actors, directors and designers come in and paint the walls, install the carpets, buy the furniture and fill the refrigerator. They can turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear. They can turn a motel room into a penthouse suite. Case in point. My first play, Vikings, that was such a disappointment when done in New York? Two years later I saw a production of it at The Old Globe in San Diego. It was wonderful. It made me laugh. It made me cry. Who wrote that, I asked myself. And my last play, The Tragedy of the Commons, received mostly negative reviews for what I thought was a pretty good production in San Diego but then received great reviews – pick of the week! Yay! – for what was, yes, just a pretty good production in LA. Go figure.
And if reviews have become increasingly irrelevant in the theatre, than I wonder what they mean in the film business where word of mouth, Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes are usually humming about a film before it’s even opened.

I can’t say I ever paid an enormous amount of attention to the reviews of any film I worked on. Part of this is because when a film is released a writer is often two projects on and another part of it is that so many things go into the success and failure of a film, it can be difficult to take reviews – good or bad – personally (that’s the director’s job).

As a screenwriter, I considered myself a working writer. As often as not I took the best jobs offered me. I didn’t do a lot of spec work – write original work on my own dime. It’s easy to say I did this because there were bills to pay, children to raise, and it was nice after years of just getting by to be paid handsomely for my writing. Still, looking back, I wonder why I didn’t do more original work. The screenplays I’m proudest of are those that were pretty much started from scratch. The Old Boy based on the play by A.R. Gurney is a particular favorite. A foray into sci-fi – Jonah – got me a million meetings in LA. And Beautiful Joe, an original screenplay was produced in 1999. It starred the insane Sharon Stone and the terrific Billy Connelly and was helmed by a first time director named Stephen Metcalfe. It was taken away from said director in post-production and reedited by the producers into something unrecognizable. In the United States it went straight to video. Speaking of reviews:

“Beautiful Joe is a well-intentioned film, and that is nearly all that can be said for it. It tries to be both comedy and drama, but is comfortable as neither. Stone’s character is the standard beautiful-but-messed-up-woman-who-needs-rescuing who is for some mystifying reason supposed to be appealing. And yes, of course she has a mute son who just might speak if only he had the right reason. Stone, who stretches herself here, is clearly eager to play a character: she mugs, she drawls, she wiggles, and she cries. Not a scrap of scenery escapes her gullet; at times her attempts at comedy actually become sort of upsetting. Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows turns in a similarly inept and cartoonish “comic” performance. Beautiful Joe’s one saving grace is Connolly, who manages to rise above his fellow cast members and the bizarre editing to turn in a charming, dignified performance.”

This review was very difficult to ignore because I believed every word of it to be true. In fact, I actually liked this review because they didn’t mention the idiot who’d had the temerity to have written and directed the fiasco – me.

I find myself now on the verge of having a novel published (March, 2015). I have gotto admit, I find it more daunting than I ever did the opening of a play or the premier of a movie. I have become aware of how many books hit the shelves not to mention the Arts and Culture sections of various Sunday papers ever week. A trip to the local booksellers leaves me aghast at the sheer number of talented writers I’m familiar with and the even greater number of published writers I’ve never heard of before. Is it my imagination or are each and every one of them New York Times best sellers? Regardless, they all seem smart as hell – something that can’t be said for a lot of screenwriters (or playwrights who, frankly, are of questionable intelligence for even attempting to be playwrights).

I find it daunting too, that a novelist has no one to share their failure with (i.e.; blame) – no actors, no directors, no producers. A novel is a house that you, the writer, were not only the architect and construction foreman on, you were the interior designer, painter and gardener as well. And like a finished film, it’s a done deal. Once it’s out there, there are no do overs.

But here’s the good thing. It’s still my review that is most important to me. And I think my novel, The Tragic Age, is pretty good. Unless it’s a Monday. Or a Thursday. Or the eleventh hour on a Saturday. Or leap year. Or two in the morning and I didn’t like dinner. Or I’ve stunk at tennis. Or I’m reading something I really like and admire. At times that like that – most of the time, in fact – the sheer idiocy of what I’ve attempted assails me. It discourages me and deflates me and leaves me no choice to do anything but start work on the next project.

Why, you ask?

Because I like it.

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

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