Portraits from a devoted theatergoer.
From 1992 to 2012, Lahr (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, 2014, etc.) served as the New Yorker’s theater critic, publishing nearly 1 million words. This collection brings together 16 lively profiles of playwrights and directors, along with reviews of a sampling of their works and assorted other productions. Only two women—playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Susan Stroman—appear in a roster that includes such luminaries as Arthur Miller, David Mamet, David Rabe, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Ingmar Bergman, and Mike Nichols. Wallace Shawn, whom Lahr has known for decades, is a surprising—and delightful—addition. Asserting that criticism “is on the decline” because of media’s focus on lifestyles and celebrity, Lahr aims to provide context, illuminating the goals and artistry of his subjects. “Over time, if all goes well,” he writes, “I can ask the forbidden questions, and get answers.” Not all subjects are forthcoming, although the strongest of these profiles reflect Lahr’s dexterity as an interviewer. Miller talks about the genesis of Death of a Salesman in Americans’ “moral condemnation” of failure. The first performance, Miller told the author, was met with stunned silence until “someone thought to applaud, and then the house came apart.” Mamet reflects on “the helpless collusion of children with their parents’ sadism” in the “emotional hurricane” of his family’s life, which fueled his plays. In deftly crafted reviews, Lahr praises the premiere of Ruhl’s Stage Kiss as a “bright and buoyant thing” and Stroman for her dedication “to banishing gravity from the stage.” The profile of Shepard seems drawn entirely from publications by and about the playwright, resulting in a piece that lacks the intimacy of some others, such as the author’s portraits of the “arch manipulator” Bergman; Pinter, debilitated from esophageal cancer; and the “courtly, unassuming” Tony Kushner.
An exuberant, entertaining collection.