How Do You Spell Dorktastic?

At peak moments of silliness in Chicago theater someone usually comments, “This could never have happened in New York.” The obvious reply, “Of course it could,” misses the point. New York isn’t a place, it’s a standard.

Last week Hedy Weiss, the Sun-Times drama critic, caught a lucky break. She was barred from a press conference that embarrassed many of the journalists who got in. Later, Reader drama critics snickered, can you imagine this happening in New York?–even though the instigator of the debacle was a New York producer, David Stone.

Weiss has had some colorful run-ins with the brain trusts of shows she’s trashed. Think of them as the backstory to her treatment October 10 at the press conference at Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place.

Begin in 2002, when playwright Tony Kushner spoke here, and Weiss slammed him in print for his “stock anti-Israeli diatribe.” Forward to May of last year, when Weiss said in an item about Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, “Unfortunately, Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots.” Given equal space in the Sun-Times to reply, Kushner called Weiss’s description of him “ugly and baseless.”

Last March there had been trouble at a press conference called to announce a Chicago production of the new musical Wicked, which was directed by Kushner’s pal Joe Mantello. By various accounts, including her own, Weiss arrived with her nose out of joint. News that Wicked was coming had already been reported by Chris Jones on page one of the Tribune, and Weiss suspected foul play. According to a Sun-Times article by Maureen O’Donnell on October 11, “Weiss said she expressed displeasure in a professional tone at the event in March because she believed the Tribune had been favored over the Sun-Times with leaked information.” (It was of course unthinkable that Jones could have gotten the scoop legitimately.)

As the producer of Wicked, Stone was on the receiving end of Weiss’s “professional tone.” John Barron, editor in chief of the Sun-Times, allowed on Chicago Tonight last week that Weiss questioned Stone “rather aggressively. . . . It got loud. It got contentious.” Apparently Stone was traumatized. “Ms. Weiss,” he said in a statement he gave the press explaining why he wouldn’t let her into the Drury Lane press conference, “behaved erratically and unprofessionally.”

Nothing against the news-paper, he insisted. “Chris Ledbetter, Misha Davenport and, in fact, the entire entertainment department of the Chicago Sun-Times–except for Hedy Weiss–were invited.” But “I couldn’t tolerate Ms. Weiss’ inappropriate behavior again Monday when I was playing host to very important members of the theatrical community.”

Wicked came to Chicago with a reputation as a pleasant show that appealed to teenage girls. When it opened in May, Weiss called it “hugely overstuffed” and “postmodernized.” George Orwell, PETA, the Weather Underground, Eva Peron, and Hitler found their way into her review, which posed questions that hadn’t occurred to other critics: “Are the Munchkins, in their blue-and-white striped uniforms, supposed to be inmates of a concentration camp?” “Is this musical one very weird apologia for terrorism?”

Like Kushner before him, Mantello responded at length in a letter to the Sun-Times, and in language as over-the-top as Weiss’s. “These provocative interpretations are ludicrous and exist solely in the fever dream of Weiss’ paranoid imagination,” he declared. “Her excessive, stop-at-nothing refusal to critique the production on its own terms is irresponsible and insults the millions of people who suffered unspeakable in-dignities and horrors at the hands of the Nazis.”

When Wicked reopened in June with a permanent Chicago cast, the Sun-Times assigned Davenport–to Weiss’s distress–to write the new review. Davenport thought the show was wonderful.

This brings us to the matter at hand. Publicist Margie Korshak called the Sun-Times on Thursday, October 6, to say that Stone would be holding a press conference at Drury Lane the following Monday and that Weiss wasn’t welcome. Features editor Christine Ledbetter spoke to Korshak and told her that if Weiss didn’t get in, the Sun-Times would make an issue of it in print. She suspected Korshak was bluffing.

The next day Weiss somehow scooped the Tribune. She reported that Stone’s current Broadway hit, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was coming to the Drury Lane–though she managed not to mention Stone. The morning of the press conference Korshak called the Sun-Times again to warn Weiss that Stone wouldn’t let her in. Sure enough, a security guard stopped her at the door.

Inside, Stone announced what everyone already knew, thanks to Weiss, and started calling names. Chris Jones, up onstage. Lewis Lazare, come on up. You too, Richard Christiansen. Even Korshak got roped in.

Stone was going to have a bit of fun. Putnam County is an audience-participation show, and he intended to give everyone a taste of it.

“They thrust a microphone in my face and say, ‘Spell a word,’ says Jones. “It was an ambush of epic proportions.”

He went down on a word he’d never heard in his life.

“Raconteur,” said Stone to Lazare.

“The whole gimmick of the thing,” explains Lazare, the Sun-Times marketing columnist, “was that he gives you the word and you are supposed to say, ‘Can I have it in a sentence, please?’ The whole idea is to see how funny you can make the line.”

“R-A-C-O-N-T-E-U-R,” said Lazare.

“Chimerical,” said Stone to Christiansen, who retired as Tribune drama critic several years ago but keeps his hand in.

“I was sure he’d get that,” says Lazare.

But Christiansen didn’t.

Stone called out Weiss’s name, then announced that she couldn’t compete because she was in detention.

And on to round two.

Before he could be acclaimed champion, Lazare had to spell one more word.

“Marshall Field’s,” said Stone.

Lazare thought he knew that one too.

No, said Stone. It’s M-A-C-Y-apostrophe-S.

“I wish I had not shown up,” says Jones. “I’m busy. I don’t have the time. I showed up there to go to a press conference announcing a new show, right? And he pulls this sort of stunt. I don’t mind making fun of myself in the right forum, but the rules don’t allow us to participate in things we’re covering.”

But what could he do? “If you storm out you feel like a jerk and make the paper look bad.”

Jones left as quickly as he decently could–and ran into Weiss. “I bolted out of there, and I saw her on the sidewalk with her nose pressed up against the glass and this thuggish-looking guy at the door. She wanted to know how much the tickets were going to be, which I told her.”

Lazare thought the security guard didn’t look all that thuggish. “He was tall and beefy, but he was dressed in a sport jacket, so he had a certain aura of professionalism that you don’t see in bouncers.”

At any rate, the critics of both papers went back to their offices to tell of the indignities they’d suffered. Both papers promptly let Stone know they weren’t happy, the Tribune for putting its drama critic through a dog and pony show, the Sun-Times for what John Barron called the “bush-league stunt” of not letting its critic in. By the time Barron appeared on Chicago Tonight two days later he’d polished his material. “To our way of thinking,” he told host Phil Ponce, “it’s kind of a one-way feud. I guess that would make it an ‘eud’ or something between Hedy and this producer, David Stone.”

Ponce noted that Weiss hadn’t reviewed Wicked the second time around.

“We thought that Hedy had already had one bite at this apple,” Barron explained. “Her review of Wicked would not have been my review of Wicked. She disliked it more than I and, honestly, many people did.”

Ponce replied, “But that’s why you pay her for her opinion.”

O’Donnell’s story about Stone’s treatment of Weiss ran on page 4 of the Sun-Times. The story about Stone’s new show ran on page 49. Jones didn’t write anything. “We had somebody else do it,” he says. “Which irritated me further, because I wasted the whole bloody morning.”

The lingering mystery is what got into Stone? Did he banish Weiss because of her scoop? Because of her antics at the March press conference? Because of her review of Wicked? Just to drum up controversy? I reached Stone at his New York office and asked what his motive was. “I think this has been covered,” he said. “I think this is–quite enough, OK? Thank you.”

Weiss took a similar line. “I want it to go away,” she told me. “I want to move on.” That’s what Stone said, I replied. Refusing to take the bait, she said, “I go home and look at the earthquakes and look at the hurricanes and look at the war, and in the scheme of things it’s pretty trivial.”

If Stone had been willing to say anything he might have said that the prissiness of Chicago is unthinkable in New York. After all, this wasn’t his first media spelling bee. Before Putnam County opened on Broadway last spring he held a press preview with an identical competition, and apparently no one thought twice about it, not even Jodi Kantor of the New York Times.

“They gave me some impossible word,” Kantor recalls. “The next word was phylacteries, which I think I would have been able to spell.”

What Kantor regrets is not the ethical predicament Stone put her in but that she didn’t get to spell phylacteries. In her view there was no ethical predicament. She explains that at the time she was editor of the New York Times’s Sunday Arts and Leisure section. She wasn’t a critic.

Just the kind of cheerfully meaningless parsing of principle that would never happen in Chicago.

News Bite

8 Our lockstep press:

Tribune, October 19: “The Golden Tickets”

Sun-Times, October 19: “Golden Ticket”

Tribune, October 17: “Party like it’s 1959!”

Daily Herald, October 17: “Party Like It’s 1959”

Tribune, October 15: “No Doubt”

Sun-Times, October 15: “No-Doubter”

Tribune, October 12: “Wake-Up Call”

Sun-Times, October 12: “Wake-Up Call”

Daily Herald, October 12: “Wake-Up Call for Sox”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Frost, Joan Marcus.