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For Some Reviewers, the Party's the Thing

Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz

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."

"Every client," adds another 99-seat-theater publicist, "is convinced that if the critic didn't stay for the party, they hated the show."

The signals sent to critics about receptions are decidedly mixed, then, with ethical misunderstandings inevitable. One thing is certain, however: As muted, halfhearted or subliminal as some theaters may think their party invitations to the press are, many critics hear in them only the unambiguous ringing of a chuck-wagon triangle.

Although the Los Angeles Times seems to be the only media outlet that prohibits its reviewing critics from attending opening-night receptions, most critics do not attend as a matter of habit. (Personally, I don't stay for parties. The L.A. Weekly doesn't have a policy about them, but for me, lingering in the lobby after a play is over — even with the tang of chicken satay in the air — is a little like hanging out in the parking lot after a Fourth of July fireworks show has finished.) The reasons so many critics do attend range from suffering near-diabetic shock after sitting through a long play on an empty stomach to the opportunity to socialize with fellow critics.

But there's another reason that touches upon the unspoken class divide in theater criticism: Hardly any local theater critic can make a living by reviewing alone, and some, particularly online writers, receive no pay at all. These are theater criticism's orphans, who, like Oliver Twist, have no problem saying, at the opening-night party, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Stuck at the bottom of what is literally a journalistic food chain are the writers whom publicists routinely describe as B-list or "second-tier" critics — reviewers for a vast, unincorporated territory of neighborhood broadsheets, ethnic tabloids, ad-for-review papers, student newspapers, public-access TV and radio programs, vanity zines, theater Web sites, and blogger-critics. This "B-list" has dramatically expanded its theater clout with the Internet, and, while the World Wide Web has democratized such formerly elite realms as political journalism, it has paradoxically reinforced the authority (some would say tyranny) of theater critics by increasing their numbers. The proliferation of reviewers has started a conversation in theater circles (as it has in film) as to who, exactly, is a legitimate critic and whether this proliferation weakens critical credibility.

"It's usually people from the very small papers and the Web sites who only come for the party and to feel important," says a longtime L.A. publicist. "They will call and talk to me for half an hour. These are very lonely, needy people who want compliments on their reviews. [Name withheld] is a reception crasher — that woman is frankly mentally ill. She even takes her parents to the parties!"

"It makes me sad," says one publicist who represents a large venue. "They're only here to eat." Pointed comments or raised eyebrows, he says, have no effect on chowhound critics. "They'll say to you, 'Do you know how much we get paid for reviewing?'"

The practical reality for theaters, however, is that getting one or two critics on opening weekend can be a life-and-death matter, and their reps are only too happy to invite virtually anyone who promises to write a blurb about a play or mention it on his or her blog or Internet radio program.

"I had a classic message on my machine when I was representing a free holiday celebration," says one longtime publicist. "This somebody asked for backstage passes so he could go into the greenroom, where the refreshments were. And for this, he'd write 300 words on his Web site. He used the word 'refreshments' three times."

Such critics seem to fit into several categories, which, for our purposes, I'll call Fressers, Tipplers, Willie Lomans and Angries. Fressers (Yiddish for gluttons) are the reviewers who begin a 50-yard dash to the buffet table just as the cast takes its bow, the Fressers' trained ears having pricked up moments earlier at the distant sound of clattering plates.

"Ninety-nine-seat houses won't wait for the cast before starting their receptions," explains one publicist. "You'll definitely see press people first — and they know just where to stand as the trays go by."

"We have one critic," says an experienced publicist quoted earlier, "who beats it out the side emergency exit instead of the lobby when the show's over, because our receptions are outdoors. It becomes like a feeding trough for critics — I don't think some of these people eat dinner!"

Another longtime publicist recalls the time he helped prepare a reception at a restaurant for a Valley theater as the show was going on.

"We'd finished setting up," he remembers, "and I sat down to take a break, figuring we had another half-hour or so before the audience started arriving. All of a sudden, I looked up and saw [name withheld] — he'd talked his way into the restaurant and was waiting for the food to be served."

Fressers can also be the woman critics who are known to shove food into their handbags after watching, say, The Diary of Anne Frank. (One has reportedly been spotted with a purse full of Baggies, brought for that purpose.) Or they can be men celebrated for their ability to balance multiple plates — before leaving to write scathing reviews. Receptions widely vary in budgets; what astounds publicists is that critics flock to even the skimpiest buffets.

"It's an inducement," says a small-theater publicist, of first-night parties, "because we need opening-weekend coverage — the promise of a glass of wine is a small price."

Some critics, however, have more than one glass.

"You can count on someone getting tipsy," says a woman familiar with Tipplers. "[Name withheld] is one of the more notorious — if you tell her there's champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries, she'll be there."

No publicist interviewed for this article said he or she would physically prevent uninvited critics from attending a reception, although the presence of the uninvited can become vexing, especially after a few glasses of inducement.

"There's one writer who'll both review the play and also cover the after-party," says the foodie publicist. "At one reception, she became rude to the person pouring the drinks. At this event, we passed out drink tickets that covered soft drinks, beer or wine — you had to pay for cocktails. She insisted on being served a Bailey's Cream for her ticket, and the producer got involved because the caterers needed his permission."

This same publicist remembers an opening-night catered party at a private home: "It must have been around 3:30 in the morning, and I looked and there was actually a critic there, with her friend, drinking. 'Did you have a nice time? We're all leaving now,' I asked, trying to hint. She was very wasted."

Fressers and Tipplers occasionally provide a kind of Runyonesque color to a reception. But then there are the Willy Lomans, critics who use parties as sales sessions to pitch their own projects — or just themselves.

"I do have male critics," says a publicist, "who like to stalk the younger, hotter cast boys and come to the party for that reason."

Mostly, though, a Willy Loman is there to sell, not hunt. One publicist recalls the night he'd comped a man who claimed "to promote a community of theatergoers" through a paid online listings service. Later, at the party, held at a Hard Rock Cafe, the publicist was frantically taken aside by his normally mild-mannered boss.

"That man is going around to party guests and passing out his business card and fliers!" the publicist was told.

The house publicist for a long-established theater recalls another reviewer, who worked opening-night parties for his publisher's benefit.

"This gentleman kept forcing himself on us to advertise in his small paper," the publicist says. "He actually pulled out a rate sheet at receptions. Once he showed up to interview our artistic director — with his advertising rep!"

"During the play, [name withheld] made overt faces, but then she goes to the reception and proceeds to become publicly belligerent."

The woman telling me this is a longtime Los Angeles theater publicist and producer. The person she is describing is a newspaper critic who attended the opening night of a play.

"She goes up to the playwright," the producer-publicist continues, "and in front of his cast and director, says, 'Your play is awful and you don't know how to write, but at least you're cute.' She ripped his heart out. He was devastated."

Welcome to the world of the Angries. These are critics who, fired by wine, bad moods or extreme aesthetic values, can't resist leaving a verbal foretaste of their reviews or acting out their own personal dramas.

"We just had a really ugly altercation with someone we'd been dealing with for 20 years and who went way over the line," says a prominent publicist. "He went backstage and became obnoxious with the cast members — critiquing them to their faces, telling them they hadn't lived up to the material. We had to call security because he wouldn't leave."

To their dismay, some theater people will encounter an Angry who breaks the fourth wall — and lumbers into their lives.

"There's one guy who is so obnoxious and really loud," says a publicist. "He'll walk out during intermission or talk to his wife during shows. By coincidence, my parents met him on a cruise — they thought he was the most obnoxious person on the ship. Later, at home, he joined their bridge club and the club had to kick him out!"

Angries needn't always be angry. In a world where literally everyone, thanks to the Internet, is a critic, the line between private kink and public behavior gets increasingly blurred, especially for those critics who'll seek out high-profile playwrights to autograph their programs or who'll insist on speaking to the actors after the show. All, presumably, for research. Sometimes "civilians" will impersonate a critic to pursue other agendas. Over the last two years, local theater watchers have been roiled by alarms sounded in the posts of the Big Cheap Theater message board regarding a certain "Alan Brown." Brown claimed to be a theater critic, but his real expertise apparently lay in foot fetishism — during performances, he'd take photos of actresses onstage and would go backstage and ask to take pictures of their feet. (Click here for an example of Brown's work; click here for a firsthand account of Brown's antics.)

One publicist for a small theater that had been stung several times by this shutterbug pressed for the man to show him some of his reviews, only to be met with silence. Brown was eventually run to ground through word spread on BCT. (Actually, he simply vanished.) The publicist for the theater conned by Brown is stoic about critics and crashers, and reviewers and impersonators.

"From my viewpoint," he says, "once the critic shows up, I've done my job."

For a discussion of the proliferation of theater critics, see Les Spindle's article on backstage.blogs.com and  Sylvie Drake's article in LA Stage.