New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley shares his notes from a career in the seats

Growing up in North Carolina, a young Ben Brantley dreamt of seeing what Broadway was all about. And when he visited for the first time at age 15, he wasn't disappointed.

As a student at prestigious Swarthmore College, he studied drama and acted. Forty years later, he remains drawn to the bright lights. It's just that he's no longer underneath them — instead, he's in the dark with the audience, reviewing the show.

Since becoming the chief theater critic for The New York Times in 1996, Brantley has hailed the rise of productions such as Kinky Boots and The Book of Mormon, saying of the latter, "So hie thee hence nonbelievers (and believers too) ... and feast upon its sweetness." Brantley, of course, has documented lesser works as well; he called 2013's Orphans "dispiritingly pallid." The show closed early due to sluggish ticket sales.

Brantley's word, like it or not, means a lot to Broadway and the industry, so it's no surprise that he can go almost instantly from critic to criticized. Recently, his words have spawned public hissy fits from the likes of James Franco (who last year called Brantley "a little bitch" in a short-lived Instagram post) and Orphans' Alec Baldwin, who in 2013 took to the Huffington Post for a tart essay, "How Broadway Has Changed" — which Vulture called "mostly a framing device so he can rip into Brantley."

Yet Brantley sees it as part of the gig, because to him, it's all part of the conversation — the spark for which is the critic's main objective.

How the 60-year-old approaches his craft, as well as his insights on Broadway and criticism in the social media age, were among the topics in his recent phone conversation with the Indy, excerpted below. Brantley will expand on his thoughts in a March 30 panel discussion at TheatreWorks, in conjunction with the Visual and Performing Arts Department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Indy: You talk about having this great love of theater. Do you have a love of writing similar to that?

Ben Brantley: You know, unfortunately I do. I'm one of those people who likes to get up and write. I actually look forward to it.

At places I've worked in the past, like when I was under contract to magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, I'd have much greater time to write, and I didn't love that because when I write, I write quickly — so you sort of feel almost guilty being able to do it quickly, so you stretch it out and you agonize. But under deadlines, no, I love it. As long as I can have coffee, I'm fully functional.

It's almost like, even when it's kind of hard, when it's a more difficult play to explain than another one — I love to do crosswords, especially the late-week crosswords in The New York Times. And it's sort of like that, that process for me. It might look a little daunting at first, but I know I'm going to get through it and I know I'm going to have a good time doing it. ... I'm very lucky in that regard.

As a critic, it seems like your job is to interpret or discuss really intangible things. How do you approach that? You're very good at finding these little things that illustrate big differences.

Well that's what it is always, isn't it? It's the details that resonate. A particular gesture from a performer may somehow be the key to the whole production for you.

What you want to do, I think, is recreate as completely as possible, the experience you had watching the play. And just to throw out abstractions, like, "This is a play about justice or morality, or corruption," isn't going to do it. You have to anchor it in the physical experience of theater and the emotional experience of theater. And for that I think you do need to give a sense of, literally, what you saw on the stage and how you felt seeing it.

One of the things that I really like about your reviews in particular [is that] I think you cover so much ground so quickly. You talk about this particular play, the history of the play itself. I read your review of Of Mice and Men with James Franco —

Yes, yes, my good friend.

You talked about the play, so no matter who you were coming into the review, you could take something away from it. If you'd never heard of Of Mice and Men before.

I think it's the critic's job to provide context, provided you have the space in which to do it, and we're very lucky at the Times in that we have a larger word count than most journalists do today in newspapers. Ideally, I'd like someone who's never heard of what I'm writing about to be able to sit down and, as you say, come away with some understanding of what it was afterwards.

And I have to say, that entire thing was very funny.

Oh the Franco thing? That happens from time to time. And it's fun, do you know? It's nice to have the sparks fly from time to time.

Josh Brolin once attacked me in similar terms, and we became sort of e-friends afterwards. I'm given an incredible platform to say what I think of these people, and thanks to social media they can answer very quickly if they like.

Personally, I have a Twitter account, but I don't tweet myself. ... I think there's a danger in being impulsive in your opinions when your job is to digest and give a carefully measured opinion. And I think Mr. Franco probably regretted — that was something he posted on Instagram and immediately took down, but not before it registered. That's one of the dangers of social media now.

And that's a large part of the direction that criticism, especially, is going. I've read a lot about what that would mean for the industry, and for critics, but what do you think that means for readers?

Well, it's certainly a more democratic process, isn't it? ... And we have a dialogue of sorts. Readers are allowed to post whatever they want about the reviews that are posted online. Ultimately, I would always, as a reader, want to seek out someone who comes with a certain knowledge and background in writing what he or she writes about. ...

When I was growing up, my favorite critic to read was Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, and it was immaterial whether or not I agreed with her, but she got the conversation going in your head. I still read her sometimes before I go to bed at night, and I think that's the ideal function of the critic, is to create a conversation with the person who's reading you. And I don't think you can do that in 140 characters ...

What are the biggest differences between Broadway and regional theaters?

Well, you gotta remember a lot of what's on Broadway now comes from regional venues, or off-Broadway. Broadway's such a high-risk proposition now for any investor. They want to know what they're getting before. So Broadway as a creative crucible now doesn't exist; it's more in the importing business. So I think a lot of things that wind up on Broadway now can start off in your hometown, and hometowns throughout the country. ...

The most exciting new musical this season, which is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's history musical, is at the Public Theater downtown now, just a few blocks from my office, and will probably be a big hit on Broadway. But Broadway as a center of creativity doesn't exist anymore.

People talk about the Golden Age of Broadway having long since passed, or that it was just a short amount of time anyway —

It was. A lot of people basically say it was between the two world wars.

But this talk about this always-bygone era?

That's very dangerous, to think that. I think it's a very fertile period for theater now. And occasionally some really great things do wind up on Broadway.

There seems to be, even though everyone's always saying it's a dinosaur, there seems to be a real interest in theater, and I do think it provides a thrill that no other art form does. And I think especially in a time where people are feeling remote from one another, physically, there's something about the communal experience of theater and having the work of art that's created before you, happening in real time with real people, that if you were a few rows closer you could reach over and touch. I think there's a singular thrill about that, that you can't replicate in virtual reality, so I think that's part of that.

But I've seen some — oh gosh, just within the past couple of months I've seen some incredibly exciting productions. ... a play called An Octoroon, off Broadway, it's in Brooklyn at the Theatre for a New Audience, by a very talented young playwright named Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. He's taken an old melodrama written about a slave and a plantation owner and their illicit love and done a sort of contemporary commentary on it while using the original script, and it's one of the most exciting plays I've seen about race, ever. And it makes you think about it in new ways and realize how ill-equipped we are even to have the conversation.

There's a two-character play on Broadway now that came out of the Royal Court where I first saw it in London in a tiny theater, Constellations. It's a boy-meets-girl, told from every possible perspective, sort of in fragment. But it winds up being very, very touching, and this is a case where two movie stars, or stars known from the screen, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, are just superb. And the chemistry is there, and again, to feel that chemistry live, as opposed to, you know, something that's framed and frozen on the screen, is uniquely exciting.

It's a very sensual experience, and I don't mean erotic, but I mean there's just something. You can feel it, you can feel it in your gut.

  • New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley shares his notes from a career in the seats


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