It's a common misconception that critics love giving bad reviews. A lot of artists seem to have an idea that critics leave most performances cackling under their breath at all the devastating takedowns they've formulated over the course of the show. I can't speak for everyone, obviously, but I can say that hasn't been the case in my own critical career. While I won't pretend that I've never enjoyed lambasting something that offended my sensibilities, I generally get far more joy out of helping a worthy work of art find its audience than I do from giving something lackluster a savaging (no matter how deserved).
With that in mind, for this installation of Reviewing the Reviews I wanted to focus on a production that's garnered raves across the board. Loudmouth Collective's take on David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers at Nimbus Theatre fits that bill. Pretty much every local review of this show that I've read has been overwhelmingly positive. What's interesting to me is the many forms that positivity can take.
I complained a bit in my last column about how the system rewards productions for simply meeting expectations, which in turn encourages reviews that do the same. It's nice to see a show like Fuddy Meers, whose prickly themes of memory and identity make it difficult to saddle with preconceived expectations, inspire critics to up their games as well.
Take a look at Ed Huyck's City Pages review, which hits on the expected critical touch-points (Plot summary, cast call-outs, mild reservations about the script, etc.) while also pushing into more reflective territory: "[B]arriers to communication not only obfuscate the truth behind all of the characters' relationships, but also suggest how difficult discovering the 'truth' can be." "Even characters who appear to be little more than jokes... grow in depth as the show unfolds, and the actors match that well, adding to their performances until the full impact is much more than a night of screwball comedy."
It's an accessible but intriguing review that lets me know that the play really provoked some thought from the critic. Even Huyck's problems with the script are couched in reflection: "Thankfully, the full-bore pace of the play and the talented cast of actors smooth over those concerns, at least until after the show is over." By design, Huyck's style doesn't often allow for personal flourishes, so it's refreshing to see a play elicit a glimpse of a veteran critic's thought process.
On the other side is Cherry and Spoon writer Jill Schafer, whose engaging, first-person approach is a big part of what's gained her a following and made her stand out amongst dozens of come-and-gone Twin Cities theater blogs. Like Huyck, Schafer draws an early parallel between Fuddy Meers and Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole and Good People, all three of which she's seen in the past year. She initially doubts that Fuddy stacks up to the author's more celebrated works ("While one could easily see oneself and one's friends and families in the characters and scenes in the former two plays, it's a bit of a stretch with Fuddy Meers.") but finally decides that all of Lidsay-Abaire's trademarks are present, just played to more absurd levels. That kind of personal touch adds a certain friendly authority to Schafer's review. She never implies that she's speaking to anything but her own experience, but she also makes it clear that she knows what she's talking about.
Although Schafer's second paragraph consists mainly of the obligatory plot summary and cast rundown, I'm impressed with the way she structures it. In a fairly succinct 278 words, she lays out the complicated story, name-checks all seven cast members and gives a mini performance review for most, and wraps up with a brief meditation on what made the play work for her. There's nothing groundbreaking about this, or about the review as a whole. It's a pretty straightforward positive review without a lot of style, but there's a warmth and confidence to her approach that makes it more engaging than it has to be.
I suppose that's one advantage blog-based reviewers have over more traditional outlets. A writer like Schafer is much freer to fold her personality and preferences into her reviews than is a writer like Huyck, who needs to maintain a veneer of objectivity. If that personality strikes a chord with readers, her writing becomes that much more authoritative to her core audience. This can be problematic if a writer allows voice to trump analysis, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Cherry and Spoon. This is the work of a theater-lover who knows the mechanics of a no-nonsense review.
My favorite review of Fuddy Meers, though, comes from Matthew A. Everett at TC Daily Planet. Everett is unabashed about his fondness for the production, opening his review with "I'm going to need to revise my list of favorite plays." That level of critical enthusiasm can be a bad sign (browse some amateur movie review blogs some time if you want to see how dreary unchecked raves and pans can be), but Everett is a skilled writer who knows how to back up his praise with substance.
"It's a very funny play about very unfunny things," Everett says. That's exactly the kind of pull-quote a company would want to include in its promotional materials, and it's also the kind of succinct statement of purpose that would make me want to go see the show. Throughout this piece, Everett calls out many of the same elements cited in other outlets – the mordant humor of Lindsay-Abaire's script, Karen Wiese-Thompson's brilliantly unintelligible performance as a stroke victim, director Natalie Novacek's deft handling of the play's many moving pieces. What sets this review apart is Everett's skill in articulating why exactly each of those elements worked so well.
Take this passage, for instance: "Some less successful productions fight the play's instincts, trying to milk a little extra comedy here, a little more pathos there, when the play has already moved on. Loudmouth Collective's great cast have wisely grounded themselves in the humanity of all these characters, however outlandish, and so whatever happens, the moment always rings true." That's an honest, relatable assessment of what sets this production apart from not just other mountings of Fuddy Meers, but from other dark comedies in general. (I know I harp on this in every column, but some of this comes back to word count. Everett has a lot more space to say exactly what he wants to say than many critics do, and he takes advantage of it.)
One more stylistic note that makes the TC Daily Planet review a standout: I very much like Everett's use of quotations from the play as paragraph breaks. It serves the utilitarian purpose of breaking up the visual flow of the page and avoiding the dreaded Wall of Text, and also gives the reader a taste of the play's sensibilities. Obviously reading snippets out of context can't give a full picture of Lindsay-Abaire's dialogue, but how can you see a line like "God, I hate this basement. It's like truth serum." or "I can smell Daddy's cologne. It must have seeped into the wallpaper." and not be at least a little intrigued?