WHO NEEDS THEATRE? by Robert Brustein (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95; 336 pp.). "Who Needs Theatre?" is a collection of essays written between 1980 and 1986 by Robert Brustein, drama critic of The New Republic and artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Learning, intelligence and a passionate commitment to the theater are everywhere apparent in these pages. But curious to say of such a devotee as Brustein, his essays are of the greatest value when he is most detached in his approach. They tend to ride off the rails into a no man's land of misapprehension just when he is most involved, personally or intellectually, with what he observes and discusses. Thus, his pieces on the meaning of Lillian Hellman's anger, or the essentially rhetorical difficulties underlying the South African political drama "Born in the R.S.A." are cool, incisive and integrated in subject and argument. But his puffery for his former student Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," a jejune broadside at modern American family life using TV sitcom characterizations as its blunt instruments of satire, is embarrassing.
His panegyric to Marsha Norman's " 'Night Mother," which he first produced, is positively loopy; he sees this attenuated suicide drama as an accretion of details that is Chekhovian in its beauty of form; the night I saw it the man in front of me, after having watched the protagonist fill candy dishes and write shopping lists all evening, jumped up from his seat and said, "She should have shot herself an hour ago," thus hitting the nail Brustein doesn't even seem to know exists.