“A good review is never good enough . . . a bad review is devastating . . .”
Critical Mass (written by Joanne Sydney Lessner and directed by Donald Brenner) exposes a dirty little secret of reviewers: for some critics, reviewing is a bloodsport. For those critics who are out for blood, the review itself is an arena for them to not only grind their ax, but to then wield it in an effort to deliver that final blow that will not only cripple an artist’s confidence but – in some cases – kill their entire career as well. Some critics approach their job with a delicious sense of malevolent relish – the more they dislike what they are seeing, hearing, reading or otherwise reviewing the higher they construct their dark tower from which to throw their prey, waiting in anticipation for that satisfying SPLAT at the end of the long fall.
Not all critics have this drive however, and when we meet husband and wife team Carrie Greenlea (Leigh Williams) and Norman Greenlea (Zac Hoogendyk) it’s obvious that Norman is of the kinder variety. Both review opera – she in person, he via recording. They are the yin and yang of the Opera world. Norm keeps a layer between himself and the work – he reviews CDs from home and hopes to be as positive as he can be with just a slight dot of negativity. Carrie likes to shoot from closer range – she attends live performances and loves her own combination of destructive words so much that she can often quote them – delightedly – from memory. Whereas Carrie often thrusts the knife in deep so as to end the suffering quickly, Norman offers a glimmer of hope, peppering his reviews with helpful phrases that indicate that someday, perhaps, there’s a possibility that maybe . . . He brandishes a knife too – but it’s of the butter variety.
Right at the top of the show Carrie and Norman have a conversation one would expect they’ve had numerous times – he’s accusing her of being harsh, she’s accusing him of being weak, and they go over the rules of responsibility once more. A critic has an obligation to 1) their editor who must maintain the integrity and credibility of the publication 2) the public who are expecting an honest opinion and 3) the artist whom they are doing no favors for if they offer false hope.
When two people do the same thing but in fundamentally different ways and based on two very different principles there is bound to be some friction, and this marriage is no different. While you sense there’s a lot of love here, the foundation of respect is withering away with every filed review. Thus, in the wake of this eroded mutual respect, it becomes hard to see Carrie and Norman starting a family, even though this seems to be something that both deeply want.
Soon enough these two opera critics find themselves in a plot worthy of any opera buffa when an irate singer, Stefano Donato (Aaron Davis – slathering on the Italian accent with . . . a butter knife) comes to exact his revenge. At this point, fans of the genre will recognize the many pat devices of classic Italian Opera: mistaken identity, falsely planted notions, blackmail, deception, plagiarism, lovers who must be apart in order for the plan to work, couples distanced by circumstance only to realize that they can’t live without each other, and an elaborate plot of retribution that involves a lattice work of lies which easily could collapse at any moment. To explain the story any further would be to give too much of it away.
The comedy of Critical Mass is generally not in the set up (plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away) but in the finesse with which the twists are pulled off and the extremity to which a simple plan of revenge ultimately travels. In these lives at least, you can’t always get what you want, but if you malign sometimes you just might find . . . you get what you need.
While the entire cast is wonderful, Marc Geller as editor Cedric West stole this show for me – not only acting as the fulcrum of the plot, the voice of reason, AND the voice of Bette Davis, but also as the one character who had the best sense of fun and playfulness. Every time he came on the scene the entertainment quotient rose by 20 points.
Ultimately, Critical Mass is about love, loving what you do, and doing what you love. It also reminds those of us who write reviews to remember to be fair but compassionate while reviewing, and teaches that you shouldn’t embed yourself in between the lines of a review in some misguided sense of ego. If this occupation makes you bitter, then find a way to do what you’re good at in a way that’s not going to leave bodies strewn across the stage.
~~~CRITICAL MASS written by Joanne Sydney Lessner and directed by Donald Brenner Theatre Row – The Lion Theatre 410 West 42nd Street (Between 9th and 10th Avenues) New York NY 10036 Now through Sunday, November 7th Wednesdays through Fridays at 8pm Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm Sundays at 3pm Tickets are $18 and are available here or by calling 212-239-6200. Tickets may also be purchased in-person at the Theatre Row Box Office, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily.