In December, a critic from another paper and I were walking to our cars after postshow drinks, when my colleague nodded at a man emerging from the theater whose show we'd seen an hour before. He was purposefully marching down the sidewalk holding a stack of what looked like pizza boxes. The man was joined by a woman who, with grim determination, was occupied with the same task.
Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz
(Click to enlarge)
"That reviewer," my companion said, "has a reputation for piling on the food at opening-night receptions."
So it seemed. For he was now carting home the edible remains of that night's reception. In fact, quite a few theater owners and their publicists complain that it's only after the curtain goes down on an opening-night performance that some critics show any signs of life — as they dash headlong into the lobby to attend the reception. Left in the dust, producers and actors alike wonder, Did the critic come for the play or the pate?
"There's a whole world of people who only attend plays if there's a reception," says one busy L.A. publicist who, like other people interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. "It's not their [bad] reviews that get me but their behavior — loading up a plate and leaving the party. Literally walking out with full plates of food to their cars!"
"We had one critic," remembers a veteran publicist, "who'd call to ask what we were serving before he'd commit to booking his reservation."
In fact, critics who compare opening-night menus before deciding which show to review are hardly rare.
"I've seen it all," says one woman who works as both a theater producer and a publicist. "Some critics will come only if there's an opening-night party, and so I have to emphasize the reception to them. I'll even have to check with my caterer and get back to [the critic] about the food."
"I'm a big foodie snob," says a publicist whose work has taken her from New York to L.A. "I've definitely seen people load up their plates off a cheese platter from Costco. Or I'll be talking to some press at a reception and see a critic hovering over a crudites and double dip, and [I'll] think, Thatis so wrong!"
The art and psychology of the opening-night reception are complex and little-understood phenomena. Many theaters hold parties for the benefit of their subscribers, donors and cast. Quite a few venues don't actually want critics attending their galas but feel they must extend some perfunctory invitation in the press release or personally at the door, especially when the entire house is invited to the party.
"I generally don't give party passes to the legit press," says the foodie publicist, who works for a large venue. "We get a certain amount of friends and family of the production and board members. We work with a limited amount of money and space, and at the most have 10 passes to give out to the press. Maybe those will be editors or society writers — people from the Times or Variety who will write about the event."
"I just think it's inappropriate for a critic to attend an opening-night party," says a highly respected media rep who works at a large theater. "Some of these second-tier freelance folks do, regardless of what they think of the show."
On the other hand, a few smaller theaters genuinely want the press to stick around after the show, and some reviewers feel that they are snubbing a theater company if they turn down personal invitations to nibble on a Milano after curtain.
"As far as I'm concerned," says a small-theater publicist, "anyone who attended an opening performance should be invited to the party if it's held in the theater."
Some go further and embrace the idea of inviting critics.
"Many of the online critics don't get paid," notes an established publicist-producer. "They like these receptions — in my world, receptions are a good thing."
Likewise, collegiate and some fine-arts venues are often interested in establishing a rapport with the city's critics, while newer theater companies, wishing to make themselves better known, try to snag critics with some Trader Joe's wine and Brie. A plate of rumaki and celery sticks, they figure, might soften a bad review. Such "critic whisperer" psychology can backfire, however — sort of like shouting "Food!" in a crowded theater.
"One Theater Row producer," says a high-profile marketing director, "was very upset because the review in Variety was bad. He was convinced it was because the critic had [originally] been told there would be a party, only to show up and find out that the night was a press preview — without a party."