Radar Fest, ‘Spider-Man’ Tell Critics to Shut Up: Commentary

Barry McGovern
Irish actor Barry McGovern in the solo show "Watt," based on a novel by Samuel Beckett, part of the Under the Radar festival. Source: Public Theater via Bloomberg

Tonight at the Public Theater, the esteemed Irish actor Barry McGovern is scheduled to perform “Watt,” an adaptation of an early novel by Samuel Beckett.

I’ll be reviewing, though I’m not meant to.

To promote the show, which is part of the Under the Radar festival, the Public’s website offers a rapturous quote from Michael Billington, drama critic of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. He and a slew of colleagues reviewed “Watt” at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in October.

Yet the Public will only provide the customary free press seats to critics who promise to keep their thoughts to themselves. (A similar request, relayed by the theater’s press representative, was made concerning “Jump,” a new work about the actress Sarah Bernhardt, staged by JoAnne Akalaitis.)

Silence is way too high a price to pay for a free ticket. So I bought my own.

This is the second time in recent months that the Public -- which gave us “Hair” and “A Chorus Line” and “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf” -- has told critics to chill.

Last summer in Central Park, the country’s most famous subsidized theater presented a revised version of Paul Simon’s musical flop, “The Capeman.” Critics were invited but asked not to review. We felt then, as we do now, that shows open to the public, especially shows presented by the Public, ought to be reviewed.

Similarly, we reviewed “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway before its official opening, after several postponements and serious accidents made the production an unavoidable topic of conversation. When a show is getting $300 a seat, it’s ready for prime time.

Come, Don’t Come

And it’s not only a matter of full-price tickets. Last spring, we reviewed the highly promoted world premiere of a new play by Tony Kushner at the Guthrie Theater.

In that case, the Minneapolis theater avidly encouraged critics to review but then disinvited the New York Times and Bloomberg News, among others, when a commercial producer decided it wasn’t “ready.” The Times complied; Bloomberg didn’t, telling our readers about that major new work while acknowledging that it was still developing. That’s what critics sometimes do. We’re not the enemy.

What other journalists wait for a subject’s permission before doing their job?

No Comment

In the case of “Watt,” the Public can’t even get its story straight about why the show was good enough for our British cousins, but not us. That’s what often happens when you circle the wagons against open discourse.

In an email, spokeswoman Candi Adams explained that individual participants in Under the Radar festival were given the option of being reviewed. But in a later communication, Adams said that festival founder Mark Russell made the “tough decisions” about which shows would be closed to critics.

Russell and his boss, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, refused to discuss the ban -- an indefensible posture for any institution, let alone one founded on the principle of making voices heard.

Under the Radar, now in its seventh season, has been an exciting addition to the city’s cultural landscape. This year’s offerings include new work by companies from Belarus (“Being Harold Pinter”), South Africa (“Correspondances”) and Chile (“Diciembre”).

I can’t wait to tell you more about them. Especially the ones you’re not supposed to hear about.

(Jeremy Gerard is a theater critic and editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE