I'm reading with some fascination the comment debate on Chris Jones's review of Route 66's High Fidelity, which opened Monday night. I was there, but I'm not reviewing the show for TOC, so I'll leave my own opinions of the show aside until John Beer's review hits on Monday. But the bedrock of the comment by "allison" that kicked off the conversation, and some of the comments that follow, deal in what I consider to be fallacies about a critic's job description; they also address some of what I talked about in my post here earlier this week. Not that he needs it from me, but I feel compelled to defend Chris a bit.
chris, theatre in this country is suffering right now. you are a chicago theatre critic. by your own words "america's hottest theatre city." you are supposed to support and encourage theatre in this town.
Part of what a Chicago theater critic is charged to do is to support and encourage good theater in this town. It does no one any good to encourage bad theater. A while back I was cornered at an opening by an administrator of another theater company who berated me about a bad review I'd written; this person used a variation on this trope and a number of its corollaries, some of which Allison also employs: these people worked so hard on this, other people in the audience were clearly enjoying themselves.
The absolute WORST thing we can do as critics is to be soft on a show we didn't enjoy because people worked so hard on it. As other commenters at the Trib have noted, if we put the hard sell on shows about which we have significant reservations, what happens to the audience members who fork over their money based on our review and find themselves with the same reservations? How much harder will it be for us to convince those same readers to take a chance on trusting us again?
Being supportive of and constructive about Chicago theater is something I personally strive for, and I relish having an ongoing dialogue with the theater-makers of Chicago and the larger world (which is, after all, what this blog has largely consisted of). But in my reviews, I'm primarily a servant of the general readership, and I have to give them my honest opinion. (And often my honest opinion can double as the best constructive theater-maker criticism I can impart, even when it's What were you thinking?) As for that fallback about how everyone else was having a good time: Transformers 2 is on track to be one of the biggest box-office hits of the summer. Does that mean Roger Ebert should have gone easier in his review? No. His readers expect his measured, subjective opinion, just as Chris's readers, and mine and every other critic's, expect ours.
To get back to my post from the other day, Allison seems particularly upset about the Trib's star rating (2.5 out of 4! Not actually bad!!!), which is something the paper only recently adopted. To answer Andrew's and Evan's comments, as well as some I received on Twitter, I find the star system reductive whether it's base-four, -five or -six, and I'd rather do without it at all, as TOC did for its first 15 months or so. I'd prefer the content of the review speak for itself, which is why I've lately stopped posting the stars on the web section front, so online readers are at least forced to click through to the words before they can see the snap judgment, which I often spend more time worrying about (and which, as Allison's concern attests, draws too much attention to itself). As long as we're stuck with them, though, I'm happier with the five-star scale than the Spinal Tap six. Your thoughts?