By Chip Brown
GQ, June 1990
Nobody would care about a damaged boy were the child not the father of the man—the source of his passions, his venom, his appetite for power. Frank Rich, chief drama critic of The New York Times, is the most powerful critic in the country. “There isn’t even anyone in second place,” a colleague says. Millions of dollars and years of creative effort, even the health and temper of an art form, hang on the opinion of a man whose standards and feel for theater can be traced back to the idealized perspective of a boy—a needy boy for whom the merriment and make-believe of stage life were a kind of refuge. Frank Rich was 7 when he saw his first show, The Pajama Game, at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1956. He was enthralled by the set changes.
Less than two years later, the verities of boyhood were shaken by a set change of a different sort, when his parents were divorced. Divorce in the leafy suburban precincts of late-1950s Washington was not the commonplace it is today. Both parents soon remarried, and Frank went to live with his mother and stepfather. But mindful of the void in their sensitive young son’s life, they tried to fill it with theater. They sprang for tickets and took Frank to New York over the Christmas holidays for a binge of matinees and evening performances—as many as a dozen shows in a week.
They knew how much he loved theater. He re-created miniature versions of stage sets in shoe boxes—of which there was no shortage, as the Rich family had been selling oxfords and wing tips in the nation’s capital since the nineteenth century. He would comb the trash baskets of the theater district for Playbills to add to his burgeoning collection. He scribbled his own blurbs on the show posters in Shubert Alley. A subscription to Variety kept him abreast of theater news. He commanded theater stats the way other kids knew batting averages. Lying in bed in the house in Cleveland Park, he could name every Broadway house, every show running, the number of seats in each theater and the weekly grosses required to keep the stages lighted.
Many people can trace their blind love of theater to a Pajama Game. Playwright Moss Hart pinned his awakening to the day when, as a child, he first stepped onto the pavement of Broadway. “The most interesting aspect of that twelve-year-old self,” Hart wrote in the opening of his memoir, Act One, “was… the already strong sense of dedication in that childish figure. …Why? How does it occur? …What special need masks those simple words ‘stage struck?’ …the first retreat a child makes to alleviate his unhappiness is to contrive a world of his own, and it is but a small step out of his private world into the fantasy world of the theater.”
Act One was published in 1959, when Frank Rich was 10. It was the first adult book he ever read. Years later, when he had distinguished himself as the man from The Times, a critic whose peculiar blend of arrogance, power and integrity made him an outcast in the world he had idealized as a boy, he acknowledged the extent to which Hart’s book had impressed him. “I still feel,” he said, “it set out my life for me in some way.”
If you think I have my head up my ass, by all means, let me know.
—Frank Rich, age 21, in The Harvard Crimson
And they did, almost from the day he arrived at The New York Times, in the spring of 1980, a bright 30-year-old critic whose last regular theater-reviewing gig had been at The Harvard Crimson. Critics are never loved, but they have seldom been loathed as much as Rich is. Producer David Merrick once attempted to put an advertisement in The Times inviting arsonists to torch the place. Casts in costume have picketed outside the building. An actor tried to throw a punch. The British press dubbed Rich “the Butcher of Broadway.”
“This is a man who knows nothing about love!” cried Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose popular musicals Rich has consistently slighted, and he cited the critic’s separation from his wife as proof. Other artists have simply bowed out in defeat. The director Andre Serban notified Rich by letter that he felt he couldn’t work in New York anymore. After Rich disparaged his work, the playwright Christopher Durang retreated to the Actors Theatre of Louisville. “Some days I want to kill Frank Rich,” he wrote in an author’s note to his play Laughing Wild. “He represents this Great Deaf Ear I must somehow get through to in order to reach a theater-going public…. the years have gone on and he’s gotten harder and harder and harder.”
In a 1988 interview, David Mamet, whose Edmond: A Play Rich had panned in 1982 but whose subsequent work Rich has blessed with respectful praise, lashed out with a typical mix of testosterone and predatory insight: “Frank Rich is a terrible critic. He’s an unfortunate blot on the American theater…. He’s a boy, he’s an untutored boy who doesn’t realize there’s anything higher than his own perceptions. As Tolstoy said, ‘Mediocre men must of necessity have a mediocre idea of what constitutes greatness,’ and he was speaking of Mr. Rich when he wrote it.”
Last year the thunderheads began to gather. What to do about Frank Rich became a staple of the agenda at Dramatists Guild meetings; a delegation of playwrights met with Times editors to deliver their grievances. In avant-garde circles, Rich was seen as the main member of a cabal of conservative white male critics hostile to anything that violated sacred Aristotelian principles of artistic unity and coherence.
He was even showing a certain distemper on the subject of mainstream Broadway. Late in 1989, he found Evan H. Rhodes’s The Prince of Central Park so bad that he felt compelled to supply his own plot synopsis in his review, certain that it was more interesting than the story onstage. Some other time this approach might have been welcomed as a whimsical departure from his customary earnestness, but given the climate of ill will, it struck many as an example of Rich’s malice and contempt.
What finally called the lightning out of the clouds was Rich’s review of Secret Rapture, by the English playwright David Hare. Rich had seen the English production the year before on one of his theatergoing swings through London. “Frank loved the play,” said Michael Kinsley, a senior editor of The New Republic and a former classmate of Rich’s who accompanied him to the theater that evening. Indeed, Rich had mentioned Secret Rapture in print as one of the highlights of the London season, noting that “few male playwrights since Williams have written female characters to match Mr. Hare’s.”
When Secret Rapture opened in New York in October 1989, it had an American cast, starring Hare’s sweetheart, Blair Brown; Hare was directing. The producers had high hopes, given Rich’s initial enthusiasm. The review that followed was devastating.
“I don’t believe there’s a dry palm that’s ever reached for The New York Times on opening night,” says Martin Charnin, the man responsible for Annie.
“Wholesale changes in the casting and design have flattened the play’s subtleties into coarse agitprop,” Rich wrote. Director Hare was playwright Hare’s “own worst enemy.” Blair Brown had replaced “the inner fire of deep conviction” with “a skin-deep air of self-satisfaction.” She wasn’t any good in Hare’s new movie, Strapless, either, Rich added for good measure. “What I don’t understand is how a dramatist so deep in human stuff could allow so pallid an imitation of life to represent his play on a Broadway stage.”
In short, the equivalent of a gun shot in the temple. Four days later, Secret Rapture closed.
Denied an audience in New York, an embittered Hare wrote the critic a three-page single-spaced letter, which was quickly leaked to the press. For wine made with sour grapes, it has an irresistible bouquet; within days it was being savored at dinner parties all over Manhattan.
Hare charged that Rich’s gratuitous attack on Brown was evidence of the “disfiguring note of personal cruelty” that had entered the critic’s writing. He blamed the disastrous deterioration of the atmosphere between Rich and the theatrical community on the critic’s unwillingness to acknowledge the responsibility of his power, his seeming contentment to “lord it over a town full of insipid comedies and mindless musicals.” He was, the playwright said, the Emperor of Ashes.
Rich, who had declined to meet with Hare, came back with a letter of his own. Of course he knew the consequences of his reviews, but readers were his primary concern, not the survival of the theater. And what readers! Times readers were “incredibly sophisticated,” he reminded Hare. To the playwright’s main point—that Rich could have faulted the production, but in a tone that kept the play running instead of destroying it—Rich replied, “Your argument for rewriting is based on the unstated assumption that the readers of The Times should be addressed disingenuously, patronized, spoken down to. When critics do that—indeed, when any writers, playwrights included, do that—readers stop listening to them. Readers can smell when a writer is holding back and isn’t telling them the whole truth (as he sees it).”
Stories about the tsimmes appeared in Variety. Rich was profiled on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Diane Sawyer invited him to appear on PrimeTime Live. Screeds for and against Rich ran in the theater journals. And soon the lights came up on a second act.
Hare had mentioned in his letter that he had been talking to Newsweek critic Jack Kroll (who had called Secret Rapture “the best play of the year”) and that it was Kroll’s opinion that Frank Rich’s attitude about his power was to pretend that it didn’t exist. Socializing with artists would compromise critical independence, Rich replied. If he hung out with playwrights on the eve of reviewing their work, as Kroll did, he would be relieved of his duties, and Hare, he continued, by publicizing the circumstances under which Kroll had reviewed Secret Rapture, hadn’t done Kroll any favors with his bosses at Newsweek.
That was prescient, as it turns out. Newsweek Executive Editor Steven Smith, an old friend of Rich’s, decided, amazingly enough, to suspend his own man, whose job as both critic and reporter required that he “compromise” himself now and then by actually meeting the subjects of his reviews. (Six weeks later Kroll was quietly reinstated.)
Generally, criticism troubles Rich no more than rain troubles a duck, but, according to friends, the imbroglio with Hare took its toll. There was a note of defensiveness, not to say sanctimony, in Rich’s annual year-end recap: “Let the Berlin Wall crumble or the Mapplethorpe controversy rage; the topics that exercised the New York theater community were the usual matters of parochial self-absorption (Tony Awards and ticket prices and the impact of critics), not the reordering of the world and the potential role of theater art in that new order.”
When I talked to Frank Rich on the telephone late last year, he was friendly and polite. He almost never sits for interviews, and now thought he would pass again. Oddly, he suggested that we might have dinner sometime in the future, and he also directed me to a 1987 article in Dramatists Guild Quarterly. We chatted about writing on deadline and about his job. He sees as many as 150 plays a year but reviews only a fraction of those; last year he reviewed 45. As much as he loves his work, he told me, he never thought of himself as doing one thing forever. But when I read the Dramatists Guild piece, I saw he’d been asked the same question: How long did he envision himself staying at The New York Times? “Forever and ever,” he’d said.
PETER AUSTIN [into phone]: Hello! Did I wake you? Good. This is James Wicker.
JAMES WICKER: What are you doing?
PETER: I just read your review of the new Peter Austin play and I think you’re full of shit. [He hangs up.] I guess that’s telling him.
JAMES: Who was that?
PETER: Frank Rich.
JAMES: Frank Rich?
PETER: You see what they’re driving me to?
JAMES: Frank Rich??
PETER: You’re not listening to me.
JAMES: Frank Rich. You listen to me. You call him right back and tell him it wasn’t me.
—Terrence McNally, It’s Only a Play
Broadway and The Times have had a special relationship for the better part of a century. The paper’s offices occupy a block in the heart of the theater district. Coverage of the theater is generously disproportionate to its cultural significance—an accommodation that reflects not just the value of theater advertising to The Times but the glamour and social cachet of the stage. Times executives dine with Broadway producers. Editors lunch and drink at Sardi’s, where the walls are plastered with theater portraits by the legendary Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
“I don’t believe there’s a dry palm that’s ever reached for The New York Times on opening night,” says Martin Charnin, the man responsible for Annie.
As The Times minds Broadway, so Broadway minds The Times. When postwar newsstands were crowded with ten daily papers and reviews were banged out an hour after a play opened, press agents would call friendly Times linotypers to get the advance word. Times critic Brooks Atkinson reigned for thirty-one years with an air of upright incorruptibility. He is remembered fondly not for his drowsy prose but for fostering and supporting playwrights. Writing pans, it wasn’t his style to make the rubble bounce. When Walter Kerr took over the job, Atkinson advised him “Don’t get close to these people,” but Atkinson did not feel it compromised his critical integrity to call on Arthur Miller and offer encouragement. As for Kerr, he was very much a part of the theater; he wrote shows, mounted productions and suffered bad reviews.
In those days, no one critic held sway. But as competing papers folded, the ranks of the chorus were thinned and power fell to The Times. A producer once held the curtain for twenty-five minutes for Clive Barnes when he was reviewing for that paper. Today, with fewer theaters and escalating costs, the stakes have never been higher. Rich and The Times wield an unprecedented influence over what reaches and remains on a Broadway stage. Producers opening shows take Rich’s vacation schedule into account. Much as they grouse, they’re resigned to the box-office value of his praise. A Times review even mesmerizes editors on rival papers.
“Readers can smell when a writer is holding back and isn’t telling them the whole truth (as he sees it).”
“Other papers treat a show as a bomb [if Rich pans it], even if their critic likes it,” says one press agent. “Quite often if you try to get an article placed in the paper, the editors will say ‘It didn’t get a good review.’ ”
Inasmuch as commercial influence dictates aesthetics, Rich is partially accountable for the fare producers serve. Generally hostile to the avant-garde, he has championed realistic social drama on liberal political themes; he harbors a soft spot for plays about parents and children. He’s celebrated the work of August Wilson, David Henry Hwang, Marsha Norman, Athol Fugard, Richard Greenberg and Tina Howe, but given the back of his hand to important postmodern-theater artists such as Lee Breuer. (Breuer’s 1988 The Gospel at Colonus, he wrote, has “a superficial Ivy League bull-session cleverness about it.”)
Though a Rich rave can move a play to Broadway from Off-Broadway (or from regional repertory theaters, where most serious works are now developed), it’s no guarantee of success once the play has relocated. That was the case with Richard Greenberg’s Eastern Standard, which Rich said “captures the romantic sophistication of the most sublime comedies ever made in this country….” Eastern Standard is just one of many serious dramas that have limped along or pulled up lame even with hosannas from Rich plastered on the marquee.
His real power is rather more negative: He can keep people from seeing what he doesn’t like. And it’s the rare play that survives Rich’s disfavor. When Herb Gardner accepted the Tony for I’m Not Rappaport, he cried “There is life after Frank Rich!”
No surprise, then, that the theater community is intensely curious about the critic from The Times. What will he like? What’s he like? His separation in 1989 after thirteen years of marriage has been invoked as the cause of the supposed rise in bad humor. He’s a mystery, and the mystery is fanned by his ethical scrupulousness. He stays aloof from theater people, the better to keep the taint of friendship out of his work. He doesn’t drink on review nights, lest alcohol affect his judgment. He doesn’t go to theater parties. He endorsed The Times’s decision to withdraw from voting on Tony Awards.
“The one thing I wouldn’t have known about Frank Rich necessarily is his intellectual toughness,” recalls his former college classmate David Ignatius, now an editor at The Washington Post, “that he would take all his power and struggle to maintain a distance from the corrupting influence of it. It’s so easy to get swept up in the culture of what you cover. It takes a strength of character to resist.”
While Rich may make a point of keeping his distance from people in the theater, of late he has been actively courting Hollywood. He informed New York magazine that he’s written a screenplay about the theater with his best friend, novelist Rafael Yglesias. He’s represented by Creative Artists Agency. And recently he attended Craig Lucas’s play Prelude to a Kiss with former Columbia Pictures head Dawn Steel, who now has a production deal with Disney. Rich gave Prelude as unqualified a rave as he’s ever bestowed, which couldn’t have escaped Steel’s attention; she made a bid of $1 million for the movie rights. Rich told New York he didn’t see any conflict of interest in his Hollywood sideline, but a critic given to lecturing playwrights about what readers can smell will not always get the benefit of the doubt.
The house lights dimmed, as did the lights on stage, and we were left in darkness. There was a hushed pause of a few seconds and then from out of the deep came a banging and a clanging reminiscent of the theme song from TV’s “Twilight Zone.” We were stupefied for only an instant however, for a stream of light became visible. The first scene of Stratford had begun, and not unlike the opening dialogue of most of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, all the conflicts and action of the play were thrown at the onlooker from the outset…. the production stumbled forward. While Philip Bosco was a convincing villain-Claudius, Anne Gee Byrd was a hopeless Ophelia. Even in her mad scene she seemed more tipsy than insane…. Production qualities were mediocre…. this is a commercialized and simplified presentation. Almost everything suffers in the process.
—Frank Rich, age 15, reviewing a production in a summer-camp publication
In some sense, he was a man before he was a boy. He grew up in a Maryland suburb called Somerset, a quintessential postwar tract of split-levels and ramblers and streets named after English counties. It was one of the first developments without covenants barring Jews.
Young Frank Rich attended Somerset Elementary School. He could already read by the time he was in kindergarten—common enough now that infants are fast-tracked for preschool but, like divorce, unusual then. His father, Frank Hart Rich Sr., had him read street signs as they drove around, and soon Frank was giving reading lessons to his boyhood pal Alan Brinkley, son of anchorman David Brinkley. They biked, played cowboys and Indians in the forest and monkeyed around on the rope swing at the Brinkleys’ house. Helene Rich took them to movie musicals and plays. Frank displayed an early interest in journalism, writing out his own little newspaper in longhand. He called it The Times.
When Helene remarried after the divorce, Frank and his sister, Polly, moved to their stepfather’s home, down near the Washington Cathedral. Frank’s interest in theater continued unabated. He hung around the National Theatre so often, he wangled a job taking tickets, which enabled him to see shows for free.
In the summer of 1962, Frank went off to a music-and-theater camp in the Berkshires. Indian Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, called itself a school: eight weeks of classes, drama productions and recitals, and a softball team called the Culture Vultures. Pop flies bounced off Frank, but he was a natural in the drama department, where he stage-managed, directed, acted—and wrote reviews. He played the roles of Captain Cat in Under Milk Wood and the Witch Boy in Dark of the Moon. The show still remembered by Mordecai and Irma Bauman, the camp’s founders, was a production of Philip Roth’s The Conversion of the Jews. Rich adapted, directed and starred in it during his final summer at Indian Hill.
“He was different from all the other kids,” says the Baumans’ son Joshua. “Too mature in certain ways. He was a little old man in a teenager’s body. He had a biting sense of humor—a certain superiority—but for some reason you didn’t wind up hating him. I remember one night when the lights were out and we were lying in our bunks, Frank went into this routine that was a kind of cross between Saturday Night Live and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a lewd, racy, extremely creative off-the-cuff improvisation. He could get off some ad-libs that were monstrously funny. He was a hell of a lot funnier than Harry.”
Harry Stein slept in the bunk above Rich’s the summer of ’62. His father, Joe Stein, had written for television and Broadway and would eventually write the book of Fiddler on the Roof. Harry knew something about theater, and one day when he started to whistle “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Frank’s face lit up. From then on they were inseparable. They shared a crush on Barbra Streisand. They sang show tunes. They traipsed about the camp like a couple of Holden Caulfields debunking phonies. Frank, in his buttondown shirts and khakis, was the more conservative of the two.
“It’s so easy to get swept up in the culture of what you cover. It takes a strength of character to resist.”
“Frank was socially and intellectually conscious of who he ought to get next to—certainly more than Harry,” recalls the writer Jacob Brackman, who that summer was taking a break from his studies at Harvard to teach creative writing at the camp. “There was something a little controlled and organized about him. There was something that had to do with the mind that wants to be a critic.”
Years later, Harry Stein wrote a book called One of the Guys, for which, among other things, he drew on his friendship with Frank Rich. He had been struck by his friend’s manner. Around his bunkmates, listlessly swinging a pillow in a pillow fight, Frank seemed insecure, awkward, ill at ease. But around adults, a bold, charming, charismatic personality emerged. When Harry’s dad came to visit, Frank stood up straighter and pressed himself forward to request an autograph. That way of lighting up around powerful, high-status elders served him well in college and beyond, and ripened into a kind of canny careerism: He befriended David Halberstam; he went drinking with the writer Larry King; he cozied up to Nora Ephron when she was an editor at Esquire.
Such transformations often grow out of the poignant show biz of dysfunctional families. A child learns to behave in a way that will captivate adults. Ultimately, of course, age undermines an identity that rests on the regard of others; the masquerade betrays a low store of self-esteem. There is a certain pathos about the precocious teenage Frank Rich. Perhaps in his attraction to adults, his power to intrigue and need to please them, he was akin to Baby June in the musical Gypsy, singing “May we entertain you, may we see you smile….” To say that precocity is a productive response to isolation and estrangement doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still a kind of song and dance. Gypsy, which depicted the dynamics of a dysfunctional family long before the self-help term was fashionable, spoke to Rich. Of all the shows that moved him, he wrote on the occasion of its Broadway revival last year, it was the one that moved him the most.
I have spent most of the past decade working as a writer and/or editor at newspapers and magazines. And though I’ve worked at a lot of places in an odd variety of cities (London, Richmond, Virginia, Washington, New York) there have been old Harvard friends and classmates wherever I’ve worked. Is this the old-boy network we used to make jokes about? Well, maybe. But it is fun to do the kind of work I always wanted to do and to have friendly faces around while I do it.
Thinking about those four, unusual, crazy years our class had in Cambridge, I always remember both the excitement and pain. Of course, our lives and the world have changed greatly since then but, for me at least, the present is always refracted through the years 1967–1971. Did those years change our lives as much as we thought they did at the time? I still don’t know. But I’m grateful for the off-center perspective I’ve had on life ever since.
—Frank Rich, 1981 Harvard reunion book
Inspired by his summer-camp writing teacher, Rich entered Harvard in 1967. Although he graduated magna cum laude four years later with a degree in American history and literature, his focus there was not classwork or even theater—the acting class he took quickly dispelled any illusions about his prospects in that field—but The Harvard Crimson. His intelligence and charisma stood him in good stead during the “turkey shoot” in which the upperclassmen of The Crimson’s editorial board elect their successors. He was named editorial chairman his junior year. His friends worked on The Crimson, too—none of them knew what to do on Saturday nights because Sunday was the one day they didn’t have to put out the paper.
Those were tumultuous years. Rich was part of a generation whose values embodied a radical cultural critique. The Crimson ran an editorial supporting the Vietcong. Rich and a clutch of friends went down to Washington for the big antiwar march in 1969 and camped slumber-party style in his mother’s house.
His girlfriend at the time was a blonde actress named Anne Pedersen. “There was a sense of ‘beautiful people’ about them, a sense of each of them being proud that they had won the other,” says one former classmate. Even when they fought, they sounded like a couple from a Noël Coward play:
“Fuck you, darling.”
“Fuck you too, dear.”
Rich continued to write theater criticism in The Crimson. Producer Hal Prince thought so much of Rich’s review of Follies that he printed an excerpt in his memoir. Rich had also taken up reviewing movies, advised it was the form of the future. By the time he graduated he had an agent.
That summer, in the Radcliffe Publishing Program, he met Gail Winston, a bright Wellesley graduate who had grown up in Venezuela, where her father had a fruit-canning business. The couple lived in London in 1972, while Frank worked on an autobiographical novel about his days at Harvard. Nothing came of it. “If he could have chosen anything, it would have been to be a great novelist,” says one friend.
Back in the States, his career advanced rapidly through a series of jobs: one year in Richmond, Virginia, at a paper he founded with Crimson cronies; then consecutive stints as film critic for the now-defunct New Times magazine and at the New York Post. He and Gail married in 1976, shortly after the death her father, who had not approved of their living together. From there, Frank went to Time, and then, in April 1980, he brought his “off-center perspective” to the good, gray center of the Establishment media when he got a job at The New York Times. He was 30.
Frank Rich is a concise and skillful writer. Indeed, fellow theater critic John Simon, of New York magazine, calls him “as good a critic as The New York Times has ever had.” Rich’s sentences tumble smartly and always land on their feet. He studies hard and works fast, and his knowledge of theater history is encyclopedic. At his best, he enlarges the scope of the form, connecting a play’s themes to currents in society with the range of an essayist. No one disputes that he sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. To be sure, he dissembles brilliantly, giving readers the impression that he even attended performances staged before he was born.
His style is not without its infelicities—a weakness for adjectives and a quiz-kid zeal that induces him to sprinkle reviews with more comparisons and contrasts than even the “incredibly sophisticated” readers of The New York Times may know what to do with.
The problematic aspect of his work is its tone—not what he says but the way he says it. Good, pointed writing will always draw more blood. (And certainly the way to get noticed in the New York media world is to live by the spirit of Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.”) Though Rich is reputed to be charming and witty, his work doesn’t exactly overflow with humor, other than sarcasm. There’s not a lot of humility in his criticism, either; he’s not one to cast a skeptical eye on his own grandeur, as did Max Beerbohm and Kenneth Tynan. If, as he cheekily reminded David Hare, readers can smell when a critic is holding back, they can also smell self-importance and other ungracious odors. Sometimes the scent of schadenfreude hangs over a Rich pan like cordite over a bombarded village.
“Frank is never in such a good mood as when he’s eviscerating a play,” says one friend. “There’s a demonic glee; it’s like he’s speeding. He gets off on malice.”
Secret Rapture was hardly in the same league as The Prince of Central Park; David Hare’s main point was that Rich could have made his case against the production without destroying the play’s life. What Hare had hoped for was essentially the treatment Rich had given Stephen Sondheim when he criticized the overgrown story line and didactic tone of Into the Woods. He made his points but didn’t condescend: “Much as one respects Mr. Sondheim’s maturity—and, as always, his enormous talent and integrity—his new, placid musical leaves the unmistakable impression that his art is spoiling for a fresh fight.”
Rich’s penchant for overstatement can carry him overboard, whether lauding or leveling. The fulsome tribute he heaped on Eastern Standard traumatized author Richard Greenberg, according to Greenberg’s agent, Helen Merrill. Rich raised audience expectations so high, disappointment was inevitable. He recently apotheosized Eric Bogosian, comparing the monologuist to Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. Such hyperbole is akin to an insecure actor’s pushing a line in the hope of delivering an effect he doesn’t really feel.
“In my view, it is almost whimsical the way Frank Rich has shifted from being violently pro to violently con,” says a fellow critic—not Jack Kroll. He cited the Secret Rapture episode and Rich’s two markedly different reviews of Arthur Miller’s American Clock—one written when the play was out of town, the other when it opened in New York. “With Secret Rapture, the play in either production was essentially the same. The differences were on the margin. His wild mood swing is the sort of thing I would associate with a manic-depressive. It was all out of proportion to the fundamental experience of the play.”
At the end of a long conversation, one old friend of Frank Rich’s told me, “Frank can’t tell the difference between real and counterfeit emotions. He blocked off a sensitive side a long time ago. He’s very outer-directed. He likes power. He’s a little bit of a bully. The only thing he really responds to is parents and children. Alienation and abandonment ring all kinds of chords in him. He can be very generous. He has a very sweet, needy side, but it’s hidden behind a very well-shellacked, almost impenetrable, outer layer.”
As he was a man before he was a boy, perhaps now he is a boy trying to become a man. The strictures of newspaper writing do not seem like limitations to Rich. The mask of the critic—the measured approach and the cool analysis of hot emotions—may give him just the cover he needs to edge his way toward painful emotional issues. How much easier it is to apprehend oneself through others, to possess the self under the pretext of self-effacement. In such pieces as his review of Gypsy, a close reader can see Rich making emotional connections to his own past.
Gail Rich cooked and cleaned and took care of her husband—when he was home. Night after night he was out at shows, out having a late supper at Orso. When Harvard friends came through town, he seized the excuse to go carouse. At home, he often shut himself in his office. Even the simple domestic task of giving baths to his sons, Nathaniel and Simon, could leave him nonplussed. In the wake of his failed marriage, he has entered therapy. That worldly self he manufactured as a boy is still much in evidence—he’s not above bragging about the credentials of his shrink—but clearly a new chapter has begun, and by many accounts he has become a better father. He lives alone in an apartment on West 78th Street in Manhattan and sees his kids on weekends. They are grade-school age, old enough to enjoy the theater. He slipped their opinions of Annie 2 into an “Arts & Leisure” piece on the show. (One for, one against.) His writing hints at emotional changes. Of love, he wrote not long ago: It “requires a brave, selfless, potentially foolish leap beyond one’s narcissistic romantic fantasies and into the unknown.”
If there is something affecting about him, ultimately, it’s that boy—that boy of painfully earnest yearbook entries, that would-be sophisticate who reaches for the word “restaurant” and comes up with “bistro.” It’s that boy still bent on status—risk-averse, frightened of obscurity, thirsty for self-esteem. Determined as ever to shrug off the hatred of the community he covers, to make his way ahead, feared not loved. He scurries out during curtain calls so no one will ask what he thinks of the show, back to The Times, that cluttered warren where he keeps a cast of the handprints and footprints of Marilyn Monroe.
“When I hear Frank talked about, it’s very poignant,” says Jacob Brackman, his mentor at Indian Hill. “There’s so much negative energy beamed at him; it’s like Nixon. If you’re of a New Age bent, as I am, if there are that many people who feel you destroyed their career—that their show was beautiful and you killed it—it seems wildly courageous, and maybe blind in some other way, to go on. Frank has his verities, and somehow he marches on with all this psychic hate aimed at him. It’s that boy who has that adult sense of justice. Who says, ‘Let the chips fall where they may, I call them the way I see them.’”
There’s never any doubt that the much-married Rose and her lonely, bruised children are driven to perform before an audience, to be gypsies, because that’s their only hope of being noticed—of getting the love and acceptance they have been denied in life. And might not the audience have its own deep needs in that respect? If “Gypsy” is the musical most beloved by theater fanatics, that may be because it forces those on both sides of the footlights to remember exactly why they turned to the theater as a home away from home.
—Frank Rich, November 1989, The Times
Last March, Broadway bestowed its highest accolade on what it sometimes views as the lowest form of life: It named a theater after a critic. The honoree was The Times’s Walter Kerr. He and Brooks Atkinson are now the only two critics with their bylines on theaters.
“His wild mood swing is the sort of thing I would associate with a manic-depressive. It was all out of proportion to the fundamental experience of the play.”
For the evening, a truce had been declared. Frank Rich and Walter Kerr and many colleagues from The Times mixed with theater people such as Tony Randall, Tyne Daly, Jerry Herman, Zoe Caldwell, Lloyd Richards, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein. Accolades and goodwill were flowing. Carol Channing sang new lyrics to “Hello, Dolly!”: “Golly gee, Walter/There’s no theater named for me, Walter.” Young actors sang and danced numbers from Kerr’s favorite shows; a parade of theater luminaries read excerpts from his reviews.
The night swirled with undercurrents, of course, and not all of them were connected to the bizarre spectacle of performers performing reviews of previous performances. Amity and all, it wasn’t as if Kerr had never given offense in the course of his career. (The best compliment anyone ever paid him, he says, was something he overheard in a lobby: “At least that son of a bitch knows what he’s talking about.”) Colleen Dewhurst trod onto dangerous ground when she squinted into the dark where Kerr was sitting and, in her resonant voice, read a pan of her he’d written years ago. A scandalized thrill coursed the crowd. It was as if Dewhurst had flicked a red cape in front of a bull. Then Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which funded the refurbishing of the theater, grabbed the beast by the horns.
“You have to make important differences between critics and assassins,” he said. “There are important differences between John Simon and Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan Sirhan is in jail.” On a night dedicated to a Times critic, he knew better than to pick on Frank Rich. But the old enmity was evident. Whatever treaties these tribes may make, their hostility will never be resolved. And yet, on that night, it was just as true to say that the people who write and edit and publish reviews shared some weird intimacy with the people who live and die by them. Broadway and The Times seemed like one of those couples locked in a miserably neurotic marriage, perennially at cross-purposes and yet bound to each other because the union gives one a bit of glamour and the other a bit of approval.
Strangest of all was the incongruity of Frank Rich’s being onstage. Shades of Captain Cat! None could miss the drama of the reversal: the Butcher of Broadway on the boards, actors in the seats. Did he feel conspicuous? Did he mark the sudden chill? Did he dare imagine a similar night years hence when his criticism might be honored so, with curtains going up at a theater named for him, the Emperor of Ash?
“Would you please welcome to the stage…,” he said. He was wearing a dark-blue suit and a red tie; longish hair lapped at his collar. His voice was untrained. His manner suggested he did not relish this exhibition. He delivered his lines, and then, without ceremony, he left. He did not savor the moment. He did not bask in the crowd’s regard, as did Dewhurst and the rest. Let the chips fall where they may. Maybe a long time ago theater was his home away from home, but that night it seemed like a lonely house.
[Image by Elena Scotti/GMG]