Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Year's Best Reviewed Shows

An anniversary quietly passed a few weeks ago: Dec. 5 marked one year since we beta-launched Critic-O-Meter (though we'd been grading shows for a few months prior to build up our database and hone our methodology). Big plans are afoot for the future of the site--stay tuned for those--but for now we thought we'd harness the awesome power of our (sorted-by-hand) database to present you with a year-end list of the best-reviewed shows of 2009.

It's a surprising and fascinating cross-section of New York's best theater, if we may say so ourselves, and as much for what's included as for what isn't (sorry, Streetcar, too many dissenters to the crack the "A" list). The order below, though grouped by half-grades, reflects the ranking of the raw numbers (The Emperor Jones, for instance, rated a stronger A- than Jailbait).

Without further ado, two Footes, a pair of Souls, and other Krapp:

Click Clack Moo
Soul Samurai
Twelfth Night
Avenue Q (reopening)
The Norman Conquests
The Orphans Home Cycle, Part II

Krapp, 39

A Boy and His Soul
The Emperor Jones
Everyday Rapture
The Lily's Revenge
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
My Wonderful Day
The Provenance of Beauty
The Orphans Home Cycle, Part I
Mabou Mines Dollhouse
The Shipment
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Les Éphémères
County of Kings
Finian's Rainbow
The Last Cargo Cult
Pure Confidence
God of Carnage
Circle Mirror Transformation
The Late Christopher Bean
Ragtime (the one in Astoria, not the one on Broadway)
Mary Stuart


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your anniversary.

I really appreciate what you do on this site (even as I sometimes disagree with how certain shows have been received!)

Anonymous said...

Your math is off on Orphans Home Cycle. It's a middle A, not an A+. (See comment on that page.)

Anonymous said...

The bigger the publication the tougher the critic. The smaller the show the fewer tough reviews. So, less visible productions get the least critical reviews, and thus the higher rating. The more visible shows get more reviews, and more tougher reviews.

Doesn't that create an inherent disadvantage the higher up the food-chain the show, and that's why the 'Meter scores lesser seen shows higher?

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

To the last comment: Indeed, consistently well-reviewed shows with fewer reviews can do better than big shows with a huge number of reviews, in which a few dissenters drag down the average. On the other hand, the grade for a show with fewer reviews can really drop precipitously with one low grade. We're considering median grades in the future, which would better reflect the consensus.

As to your first point about toughness in relation to size of publication, I've seen little evidence to support that. Are Aaron Riccio, David Finkle, Matthew Murray, etc. softer touches than Elisabeth Vincentelli or Charles Isherwood? Not exactly.

Anonymous said...

Since you asked, yes, I've definitely found them to be softer. Well, almost everyone is a softer touch than Isherwood... ok, except for Simon, but he's not covering indie shows either.

Seriously though, I love nytheater.com, but they are no doubt softer on indie shows than the Times is on Bway shows, almost admittedly so; and the Voice's freelance critics are softer on smaller shows than Feingold is on major productions. And Cote definitely has a soft spot for the outsiders, while TONY can be tough on the mainstream works. Also, you must agree that the lower down the food chain of theater the more personal connections effect the coverage.

Just seems that it tilts the Meter a bit, which I really don't have that much of a problem with - critics aren't my theatergoing criteria (except for maybe Riccio - he's great!). I just like this site so much that I thought I'd venture my opinion.

Keep up the good work.

Stage Right said...

I love this site too and I am so glad it was recommended to me. But, I have to say, it is a little annoying and distracting to have to read Isaac's editorial comments in his synopsis of reviews. (Although he seems to reserve them for Mamet almost exclusively).

I especially found it gratuitous and unfair to throw a slam at John Simon in the "RACE" post - "who himself has oft faced down accusations of racism and sexism." He then links to an article that is four years old. That article refers to one incident in the 1970s and one incident in 1980.

Isaac has his own blog where he often throws unfounded (or barely founded) accusations like this around, but I would have hoped that this site would have steered clear of it.

(By the way, I personally find the irony of John Simon's praise of "RACE" delightful considering Mamet's OWN opinion of Simon:

"My prize, in a stunning example of irony, was a year's subscription to New York, which rag (apart from Mary Ann's "Competition") I considered an open running sore on the body of world literacy—this due to the presence in its pages of John Simon, whose stunning amalgam of superciliousness and savagery, over the years, was appreciated by that readership searching for an endorsement of proactive mediocrity."

isaac butler said...

Hey Stage Right-- the piece i wrote on Mamet was an experiment on how far we could push editorializing, and we all agreed afterwards that it went too far.

As to the rest of it-- John Simon has been chased by allegations of racism and sexism throughout his career, he was, in fact, booted from a professional organization because of them. That's not editorializing. That the story I chose to link to was old doesn't make it untrue. Not much has been written about Simon since his long-overdue firing from New York Magazine,s o there's not that much up-to-date about it.

It's good to know that, once again, like most right wingers, your top priority is defending white dudes from accusations of racism.

Stage Right said...

Hey Isaac, Glad you agreed that the first bit went too far.

As to the Simon thing, I was not accusing you of editorialising about Simon, I agree, facts are facts. But why was the mention even there? There is nothing else in your post about sexism or racism.

It appears as though the point you were making was, "John Simon liked it, but what do you expect? He's a sexist racist.... just like David Mamet"

I'm sure that is not what you meant to imply, and I'm sure my knee-jerk allegiance to all things racist (I am a right-winger after all) forced me to infer this sentiment. Well, that and the fact that you don't bring it up any other time you mention John Simon on this site, only when referring to his rave for "RACE".

I'm looking forward to hearing the real meaning behind your out-of-left-field reference to Simon's reputation. I'm sure it has nothing to do with Mamet proclaiming himself a conservative.

It's good to know that, once again, like most left wingers, your top priority is accusing a critic of racism (or in my case sympathy for a racist) instead of arguing the merits of your own position.

isaac butler said...

That's an interesting interpretation of my intent with that summary which also happens to be dead wrong. David Mamet's two "major" plays of the last decade are about (a) someone accused of something having to do with sexism and (b) someone accused of something having to do with racism respectively. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that John Simon-- who I wanted to quote anyway-- had been chased by accusations of both throughout his career. I have no idea if David Mamet is a racist. I think-- judging by his New York Times essay in which he talked about his POV on race-- his understanding of the issue is fundamentally shallow and idiotic.
(Note that this particular bit of editorializing was deliberately left out of the C-O-M by moi).

Stage Right said...

Thanks for the explanation. I hope you can see how I could reasonably reach my conclusion based on the fact that the accusations against the main characters of 'RACE or 'Oleanna' are mentioned in your summary. The lack of that context certainly made the Simon reference seem like at best a non sequitur, at worst.. well.. I think I already made that point earlier.

And thank you for addressing my point without suggesting that I am a racist-sympathizer (or God-forbid a SIMON-sympathizer). I've never liked his reviews. I thought my gleeful inclusion of Mamet's vicious description of him served to illustrate that.

I do not know if Simon is a racist or a sexist. I do believe he does not subscribe to political correctness and the new language rules that are enforced by the left. And on this point, I agree. Political correctness stifles free expression and the spirit of a free press and society and I always hoped that artists and journalists would agree.

And, in my opinion, 'RACE' points out how these PC rules have also infiltrated the law and justice. I have not seen your review or opinion on 'RACE', I am very interested in your take.

isaac butler said...


Couching something as a backlash to political correctness has been used to excuse racist behavior for at least a decade if not two, so can we dispense with that one already? I'm not even sure I understand what people mean when they say "politically correct" anymore. I think the idea that you should call someone what they want to be called and not another term that they find insulting to be a basic tenant of civility. The idea that there are difficult questions we shouldn't ask, or things that should only be talked about in euphemism is not good for civic discourse.

But let's look at Simon's record... John Simon wrote a book where part of the point was making fun of the way black people talk. I don't consider that "politically incorrect" (the connotation of which is that he's saying some truth we want to ignore or gloss over), I consider that racist. I don't consider it "politically incorrect" to rate actresses' performances on how attractive they are, I consider that sexist. I don't consider it "politically incorrect" to say the only reason why Adrienne Kennedy has a career is that she's a black woman. I consider that racist. Whether that makes John Simon "a racist" is beside the point, frankly. I don't give a shit about what's in his heart, I'd just rather he didn't routinely write clearly racist and sexist things in his columns.

I didn't see "Race" because I haven't liked a play Mamet has written since The Cryptogram or a film he's made since The Spanish Prisoner. I think I'm well within my rights, now that it's been awhile, to say, "Thanks, but no thanks, I don't like your work anymore" when he writes a new one.

I have absolutely zero interest in his perspective on these matters, not because he's a conservative but because-- as his essays on Hollywood, Judaism, Zionism, liberalism, conservatism, acting and, yes, race, make abundantly clear-- he's a lazy, dull thinker with a gift for saying things in a way that will get people interested enough in his lazy, dull thinking to buy things that contain his lazy, dull thoughts.

Stage Right said...


Thanks. That's pretty much what I expected to hear. It's good to see it laid out so clearly and plainly. I'll let the readers of this site draw their own conclusions.


Stage Right said...

Wait... I take it back... one more thing:

"John Simon wrote a book where part of the point was making fun of the way black people talk."

Did you read: "Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline"? Or is your description here a regurgitation of what you have heard or read about from elsewhere? (just as your opinion of Mamet plays that you don't see anymore, yet you are sure they are not as good as 'The Cryptogram')

Is it possible or even permitted to write a book with a point of view that suggests that the use of proper English is on the decline in American society? If so, is it possible or permitted to include in that book examples of common vernacular from various ethnicities in America? If so, is it possible to write that book and show examples of speech that is common in some parts of the African-American vernacular without then being painted with the broad stroke of "John Simon wrote a book where part of the point was making fun of the way black people talk."

This is what is meant by political correctness. I do not believe what Simon wrote in his book is rooted in racism, I also do not believe that Harry Reid's use of the term "Negro Dialect" was rooted in racism.

But, if a man can't write a book exploring the subject that I spelled out above without a serious critic such as yourself painting him with such invective, than what are we left with? We are left with the attempt to stifle speech and intimidate others from broaching the subject lest they be labeled in the same manner.

Again, I'm not defending Simon, I'm pointing out your instinct to place people into categories without the benefit of actually knowing who or what you are talking about.

You know, like you did to me? "It's good to know that, once again, like most right wingers, your top priority is defending white dudes from accusations of racism."

Nothing close-minded about that... no, you are the model of progressive, open-minded inclusion.