Matt Wolf is London theater critic of The International New York Times and London editor of the broadway.com website. He is also theater editor of The Arts Desk website. This is the second of a two-part column.
EH: How do you review a bad play?
MW: As with anything, you’ve got to back it up critically. Just piling a lot of adjectives — such as awful, dreadful, horrible, worst thing I’ve seen since the last worst thing I saw — doesn’t do anyone any favors. And also it turns the reader off. I think you need to explain what it was that didn’t work. Was it the writing? Was it the acting? Was it the direction? Was it the set? Sometimes the audience can be part of it. Usually it comes down to the writing, sometimes not. Sometimes you can have a well-written play very badly served by an actor or set of actors; they just don’t get it. I think you have to call it as you see it. I don’t think there’s much value in pussy-footing around it, and feeling that the reader has to hold the review up to the light to see what the critic really thought.
As a critic, I try never to be mean. It doesn’t mean I like everything (far from it) but sometimes you read critics, and they just seem very sour — as if the fact of going to a bad play was somehow a personal affront. People don’t set out to write a bad play. It’s relatively rare in theater that the motivation for something is opportunistic and cynical. I don’t get offended or wounded by a bad play. I just think, “Oh, it’s a bad play, on to the next.” I have a pretty strong capacity for renewal, which is exciting. Continue reading Wolf sees good things happening in theater