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Ask the Critic: Charles McNulty

April 13, 2006|Charles McNulty

Question: How difficult is it as a theater critic to separate your own reaction to a show from that of the audience around you -- particularly on those occasions when you've disliked something that is getting an ovation from the crowd?

McNulty: The notion of an "audience" as a like-minded lump of humanity is a fiction. An audience is nothing more than a collection of individuals. And just as I wouldn't pretend to have a handle on my companion's response before we've had a conversation about it, I can't presume to know what the strangers around me are thinking, even when they're cheering "bravo."

Because theater critics in L.A. almost always attend performances on opening nights (as opposed to press nights in New York), we regularly find ourselves sitting among invited guests who are enthusiastic in the extreme. The ovations that erupt on these special occasions are often a cry of "congratulations" to the company for its courageous effort. It's a harrowing job standing before the pen-wielding press, and actors deserve all the audible support that comes their way.

The etiquette for theater critics is to clap but not stand, though sometimes we fudge it a bit and continue to applaud while rising to put on our coats. We should be more circumspect as a rule, but it's not always possible to resist. Of course, the more complicated a piece, the longer it takes to sort through our response. Appreciation isn't always immediate. Sometimes you can discover unexpected things about a play through dreaming about it, which is why a good night's sleep before writing the review is always a good idea, though crunch deadlines don't always make this possible.

Rarest of all are those productions that leave you stricken in silence. Antony Sher gave an astonishingly good performance last summer on Broadway in "Primo," his one-man dramatization of Primo Levi's Holocaust memoir "Survival in Auschwitz," but the applause he received was weak. I can't think of a purer compliment to his art.

Got a question? Go to calendarlive.com/askthecritic to send an e-mail or to browse an archive of responses.

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