Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls has clearly got a big emotional stake in his production of Desire Under the Elms, which closes this weekend and then heads to Broadway. So big that he’s done the unheard of and gotten involved in the critical discussions of it. Back in January, when O’Neill expert Harley Hammerman wrote a negative evaluation of the show, I posted Hammerman’s remarks here and drew a rebuttal from Falls. Now Kelly Kleiman, one half of WBEZ’s Dueling Critics team, reports in a blog post that Falls called her at home to complain about her pan of it—and if her account is to be believed, he didn’t pull his punches. Kleiman says Falls told her that she’s “’not a theater critic at all, but just a radio personality,’” portrayed her Dueling Critics persona as “‘the ignoramus, Joanne Theatergoer, I-don’t-know-anything-about-theater-but-I-know-what-I-like,’” and called her comments on Desire stupid.
My first impulse was to label this a bad move on Falls’s part, but when I thought about it I realized I didn’t know why. He had something to say and he said it. Vividly. Kleiman, though, would have been better off keeping the exchange to herself, since it only invites a reader to ask whether Falls might be right.
Perhaps sensing that she’s opened herself to a new level of scrutiny, Kleiman spends the last three paragraphs of her post defending her approach to reviewing. “I bring a lot of emotional energy to criticism,” she says, “if I love a show, I LOVE it and I’m dying to tell you why. And if a show disappoints, I’m not just indifferent: I’m furious.” In other words, Falls had her pegged: she just knows what she likes.
Kleiman concludes with the usual critic’s defense, generally delivered with a quivery lower lip, about how she works for Joe Littleguy (a pal of Joanne Theatergoer), helping him get his “money’s worth.” I’ve been reviewing theater for, oh, such a long time, but I’ve never been able to devise a decent money’s-worth measure. I don’t think anybody can. So I’ve decided to skip it. Instead, I try to figure out what happened at a show I saw—both onstage and to me—and tell readers what that was as clearly and entertainingly as I can. It doesn’t involve loving anything (though that happens) or being furious about something (though I suppose that can happen, too), it involves taking things in and trying to understand them.