Bright light of Broadway: Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times, reflects on editing a new book of Times reviews, dueling with antigay critic John Simon, and witnessing the healing power of theater – Theater – Brief Artic

Bright light of Broadway: Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times, reflects on editing a new book of Times reviews, dueling with antigay critic John Simon, and witnessing the healing power of theater – Theater – Brief Article – Interview

David Bahr

Reading a Ben Brantley review leaves little doubt: This is a man who loves his job. As chief theater critic for The New York Times, having begun there as a theater reviewer in 1993, he writes reviews that are insightful, intelligent, and, most important, joyously passionate. Although his first journalism job was as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily (with no previous knowledge of fashion, he bemusedly adds), Brantley has always been an ardent theater fan. He was 15 when he saw his first Broadway production, Follies, and 32 years later he can still recall every moment “scene by scene.” Having edited the recently published The New York Times Book of Broadway, which contains 125 Times reviews of some of the most unforgettable productions of the last century, Brantley sat down with The Advocate to discuss gays in theater, 2001’s best of Broadway, and his infamous television debate in June with homophobic critic John Simon. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

How did you decide which 125 reviews to include in the book?

Several factors. We wanted reviews that embody the time. These are productions that had a real impact and made news, something that people said they’d never seen anything like that. These are shows that either disturbed or shocked or were else such perfection that they became a standard for all other productions.

Looking at the past year, what do you think of the current state of gay theater? I know you liked Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby.

I don’t think of that as a gay play, although Albee is a playwright who is gay. To try and interpret everything he writes as if it’s coded homosexuality is wrong. I had an argument with John Simon [on Charlie Rose’s PBS show] about this. The Play About the Baby was much more resonant than Simon thought. I don’t think it’s coded “faggot nonsense,” as he would have it.

How did the whole subject come up between you and Simon?

Charlie Rose had said something about how I had grown into the job, giving me a kind of pat on the back. Then he turned to John and said, “Don’t you agree?” And John said something like [imitating an affected voice], “Oh, yes, but the one difference between us, I would say, is Mr. Brantley’s affection, for want of a better word, for what I call `the homosexual play.'” And of course I just went, “Huh?” Then I said, “Are we going back to The Play About the Baby?” Because we had argued about it earlier. To which he said, “Yes, that and others.”

I think John mistakes obscurity for homosexuality. He feels a little threatened. So I said that I believe it’s generational. A lot of the things that he identifies with gay sensibility are certain kinds of irony, a sense of talking in quotation marks, and what we often call camp, something that most kids are now familiar with in the age of Letterman. Then I said to him [laughing], “Maybe it’s in the water, John. Maybe it’s that gay fluoride in the water.”

What makes a good theater critic?

For me, tone of voice. It’s someone you want to listen to whether you agree with him or not. You want that kind of dialogue going in your head.

Is that what you take into account when you write your reviews?

I try. You want to convey your affection for it. Your passion.

Do you think being a gay man affects your reviews?

I would never begin a review, “As a gay man …” I just think it’s a turnoff. But if you’re talking about sexuality as being a matter of physical attraction, that doesn’t enter into it for me when I’m reviewing.

Have you seen actors whose sexual charisma has affected how you experience their performance?

Sure. Male and female. Both Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in [the current production of] Dance of Death have incredible sexual charisma. There is this escalated sense of heat when they are on the stage.

How have Broadway and the New York theater community been affected by September 117

I think at first everyone overreacted, saying, “Oh, God, we’ve got to close.” Then they realized they were being too hasty. A number of plays closed, but they would have closed anyway. I did go back to Kiss Me, Kate after they made that dramatic gesture of tearing up the closing notice and the cast and crew took pay cuts. And I found the production still terrific, just what I was in the mood for. Obviously, the tension level in New York has gone way up. Shows that might not have registered as effectively in other times are becoming hits. They would have sneered at Mamma Mia! during another time. But when I saw it, you could really feel the release of tension in the audience, with everyone luxuriating in something so incredibly irrelevant.

What do you make of the politically incorrect depictions of gays in The Producers?

I had no problem with it. I actually thought it was a healthy sign that you’ve gotten to the point where you could do that. The play is a send-up of everyone.

What has stood out for you this year in theater?

I loved The Producers. I liked The Play About the Baby a lot. Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet didn’t tell me anything new, whereas Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet did. It was the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen. You watch it, hearing lines you’ve known your whole life sounding fresh, and you realize what they could mean. That’s all I ask of a revival: Are you going to tell me something new? McKellen’s performance does. I think it’s dazzling. Kate Burton in Hedda Gabler does the same thing.

Any early Tony predictions?

I think Burton and Helen Mirren will be nominated. Katie Finneran in Noises Off should get a Tony. It’s the greatest comic performance I’ve seen in a while. The show is fabulous. Urinetown will probably get Best Musical.

What’s your assessment of contemporary theater?

When theater tries to replicate the effects of film and television, it gets in trouble. Big spectacle in the theater dehumanizes, and theater is the most human of the arts. It takes place in real time with real people, and it can all go so wrong. Yet when it goes right, it’s human ascension into divinity. It’s this incredibly transforming moment, something that’s never going to be replicated in exactly the same way.

Bahr writes for The New York Times and New York magazine.

To read more of the Advocate interview with Ben Brantley, visit

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