No Place for a Writer

About ten years ago Tony Adler began slipping theater reviews under the Reader’s door. They were thoughtful, personal, and lucid. In time Adler became the Reader’s principal drama critic, and when he and this paper parted company a year ago, for reasons that went beyond money, everyone here regretted it.

Fortunately for Adler and for Chicago theater, one outlet remained: the monthly column he wrote for Chicago magazine. But last week editor Dick Babcock called him in and bounced him.

“I think our sensibilities are very, very different,” Adler told us afterward. “He’s told me he thinks I’m a good writer, but I don’t think what I do is right for his vision of Chicago magazine. We didn’t find it easy to talk to each other–we found each other very foreign.”

To test Adler’s assertion of colliding sensibilities, we made a quick and dirty study. Here are the cover stories of Chicago’s last six issues:

August–“Hot Nights: Dancing Till Dawn, Late, Late Dining.” July–“Saving the City: Advice From Sam Skinner, Laura Washington, Cardinal Bernardin, Ed Paschke, and 16 Other Chicagoans.” June–“Summer Pleasures: Michigan’s Harbor Country, Day Trips, Fashion, Picnics.” May–“Great Getaways: The Best Small Inns and B&Bs.” April–“25 Under $25: Great Restaurants at Affordable Prices.” March–“Spring Fashion: Smart Choices From Chicago’s Top Designers.”

This list might strike you as heavy on the froth, the spume, the foam, the helium. The dearth of celebrity profiles is therefore odd, but this category was represented as recently as last December: “Mongo in Love: The many-splendored life of wild Bear Steve McMichael and his beauty-queen wife, Debra.”

Meanwhile, Adler was reflecting on the Annoyance Theatre, the death of Theater Oobleck, the state of the musical, sexual Darwinism in Chicago theater, the transcendence of saints Catherine and Therese as contemplated in a Lookingglass Theatre Company production, the focus on black issues in recent Chicago theater, and the vapid local version of Six Degrees of Separation, a play that had moved him to tears in New York.

Did Babcock simply want to be rid of such ponderousness? He says not. “I think he’s quite a good reviewer. He has strong opinions and defends his opinions very well. I’m just looking for ways to make our coverage a little more topical.” Chicago is a monthly, he reminded us. “It just didn’t seem to work for me to run reviews of shows which in many cases were three or four weeks old or in some cases were even closed when our reviews came out. If there were some way to write really timely theater reviews, as a weekly can or as a daily newspaper can, I probably would not even dream of changing our direction.”

But change it he has, toward newsier, more topical, less analytic copy. It’s a defensible shift, even though Adler had been trying to accommodate Babcock by choosing subjects with staying power. And to go on being fair to the editor, his covers are more frivolous than several of the pages within. “Service stories tend to sell better at the newsstand than news stories do,” Babcock told us, explaining his covers. Publisher Heidi Schultz says Chicago is an impulse buy on the newsstand, and a cover like “Hot Nights” can sell twice as many copies there as one that isn’t so user friendly.

But somewhere–be it in a nook or cranny unknown to the careless reader–a serious magazine finds space for a serious writer of Tony Adler’s quality. And Babcock sent him packing.

“I thought that since we are changing directions, this was a time to make a general change,” said Babcock. “He, I think, is a very good reviewer and should be out reviewing things.”

They were on different wavelengths. “We were politically at odds,” Adler told us. “He’d find a lot of the things I said in my column intemperate.” An example? Last November Adler was reflecting on the changing face of homosexuality onstage. “So while America continues to persecute and revile gay people as a matter of policy, it has also come to fixate on them as objects of its collective curiosity.” Adler says this language was too sweeping for Babcock, who wanted to take it out. Adler held his ground.

Babcock doesn’t seem to remember that particular dispute. But he told us, “I asked Tony on a number of different occasions to bolster his generalizations with facts and arguments. The opinions expressed and the politics expressed weren’t important to me as long as they were well defended.”

Adler’s fate sheds light on the nature of Babcock’s leadership. Babcock came to Chicago from New York magazine in April 1991. We asked him about his master plan. “I wish I had one,” he said. “I want to produce an interesting, lively, important magazine that people are excited by. When it arrives, people want to dig into it and see what’s there.” Chicago has never been that magazine and isn’t about to become it. Babcock doesn’t help by driving people around him up the wall.

He ousted Adler behind the backs of Adler’s champions. Managing editor Joanne Trestrail, 12 years at the magazine, had no chance to argue for Adler, whom she valued, because Babcock didn’t tell her what he intended to do until he’d done it. Senior editor Gale Kappe, who directly supervised Adler, also was kept in the dark.

Why? we asked Babcock. “Well, anytime you’re dealing with personnel I think it’s not the kind of thing you can do and involve a large group of people. I think it would be unfair to them and unfair to Tony to be talking behind his back like that.” But not even to discuss it with your managing editor? “I didn’t want to put anyone in an uncomfortable position,” Babcock explained.

Babcock’s regard for the feelings of Trestrail, Kappe, and Adler is admirable. Of course, afterward they all felt rotten. “Tony really is a critic,” Kappe mourned. “I really think he’s a marvelous critic. And a dear friend. Tony was a very illuminating writer. He uncovered hidden subtexts.”

Did you protest? we asked Kappe. No, she said. Why not? “I don’t know,” she said gloomily. “I guess because I’ve been here so long and seen so many management styles. There are lots of things I don’t have any control of. My job is the least of them. I have so little control over things that directly affect me, and it’s Dick’s magazine to run. It’s George Bush’s country to run, and they do it with or without my approval.”

Trestrail thought a good long while when we asked her if the dismissal of the drama critic was the sort of action a managing editor might expect to be privy to. “I guess I’d say it’s hard for me to see a pattern in which decisions I’m involved in and which I’m not,” she said carefully. “Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not.”

Who’s in First?

When the Chicago school of economics speaks, the world listens. Graduate student Art Kupferman at the U. of C. has just weighed in with a bracing analysis of the National League’s expansion next year to seven teams a division.

Of scant importance to Kupferman is which division the Cubs wind up in. The integrity of the play-off system–integrity being a matter of appearances–is at stake. In a recent major paper he notes that NL teams will be limited by “arithmetic considerations” to four possible 162-game schedules: 6 games against each team in the other division and 20 games against each team in its own; 12 games outside and 13 within; 0 and 27; and 18 and 6. For obvious reasons, the league is considering only the first two of these alternatives.

“Neither plan is very satisfying,” Kupferman writes. “The first one (6, 20), allows for only one road trip to teams in the opposite division, a plan that would devastate some of the traditional rivalries in the game.”

And the other? Its great flaw, in Kupferman’s view, is that all the teams in the league would play virtually equal schedules. “An equal schedule,” he notes with concern, “provides the perfect test with which one can rank the teams throughout the league!”

But a perfect test is a dangerous tool.

“The problem is this: With fourteen teams randomly divided into two divisions, in six out of every thirteen years (on average), the two ‘best’ teams will be located in the same division.”

This state of affairs is best obscured, Kupferman argues. “As long as teams in opposite divisions don’t play each other (nearly) as often as they play teams within their own division, one can maintain the fiction that the division leaders are co-equal entities. One is then justified sending the division leaders to the playoffs. Once we allow for a (roughly) balanced schedule throughout the League, this fiction is proven to be just that, and the integrity of the League playoff system is sacrificed. With the current imbalanced schedule, when the two best teams appear in the same division, we never quite know it.”

The balanced schedule Kupferman decries has been in use for several years now in the American League. Not being an AL fan, he ignores this real-life experience in favor of a rigorous, wholly theoretical argument. And Chicago economists not being provincials, he has fired off his analysis to various local papers, plus the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Sport, Inside Sports, the Sporting News, and the Village Voice. We applaud. The realm of things “we never quite know” because we don’t want to know deserves all the study it can get. It’s central to human affairs, from presidential politics to courtship.

Kupferman offers the NL a way out. A team could play every other team in its division 15 times and each team in the other division 10 times, for a total of 160 games. He reflects, “My hunch, however, is that the 162-game schedule is ‘in the best interests of baseball.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.