A wearisome compilation of New Yorker profiles, written by a scion who ought to know better.
What strange curse has afflicted the New Yorker these past 30 years? What miasma wafts in its offices that transforms the work of John Lahr, son of Bert Lahr and surely an inheritor of at least a small degree of that great man’s wit, into soggy, leaden, partisan prose? Lahr seems drawn to the more unpleasant people in the arts, and the adorations in his profiles of them are inversely proportionate to their boorishness. This results in hagiographic treatments of David Mamet, Woody Allen, Roseanne, or the very talkative Arthur Miller. He quotes Miller on Willy Loman’s failure in Death of a Salesman. “It’s the most brutal way of looking at life that one can imagine, because it discards anyone who doesn’t measure up. It wants to destroy them. It’s been going on since Puritan times. That God rewards those who deserve it.” In his introduction, Lahr claims to begin work on his profiles with “about fifteen hundred pages of transcribed interviews, which form the backbone of the piece.” In the case of the Miller interview, that number is surely a gross undercount, but when it comes to one of Lahr’s few likable subjects, Bob Hope, you have to wonder if the two even exchanged postcards. Hope comes across as one of his few agreeable subjects. Perhaps that is why Lahr manages to rise a little bit from his heavy-handed style in order to deliver a trashing of a man whose only sins seem to be the hiring of joke writers (as most comedians do), self-deprecation, and an unabashed patriotism for his adopted country. (Hope was English-born.) Lahr is kinder in his profile of Irving Berlin, but he hastens to reassure us that the wholesale PC revisions of the book in the current Broadway revival of Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun “completely remove the script’s bad odor.”
A mostly depressing assemblage.