For Discussion “At the Table” — What Is the Responsibility of the Critic?

At-The-Table-poster-1024x662 copyMy son, Michael Perlman, has written and directed a new play called “At the Table,” which is being produced at the HERE Arts Center in New York. I’m stating that up front because when people do searches for the play on the Internet I want them to find this article. But, before I get to “At the Table” by Michael Perlman, let me get to the point as it relates to my friends and readers here at Jazz Collector.

My very first paying job as a journalist was while I was still in college. I was the jazz writer and critic for The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. It was 1973. I was 20 years old. The job was a blast. I got to interview Charles Mingus, Chick Corea and Larry Coryell when they came through town. I got to write a fun essay on Charlie Parker. I wrote an article on 25 records to get started on jazz. And, whenever the record labels would send over new jazz records, they would come to me. For a vinyl addict, what could be better?

At some point I was sitting in my dorm room and I was doing a review of a new Dexter Gordon album. It was Ca’Purange (Prestige 10051 for those of us who like to keep track of such things). I didn’t think the album was all that great, particularly in comparison to Dexter’s previous Prestige albums, most notably The Panther!, which was one of my favorites. I’m at my typewriter and writing about Dexter being a disappointment on this record, and commenting negatively on the other musicians, who happened to be Thad Jones, Hank Jones, Stanley Clarke and Louis Hayes.

And I look down at the paper, and the realization hits me: Who the hell am I to be criticizing Dexter Gordon or any of these amazing artists?

I can’t play jazz, I have never put the time and effort and dedication into the craft, and these men are all masters, among the greatest musicians of our time. And, because I don’t particularly like this particular album, I’m going to publish an article with my name attached to it and say something negative about them? What gives me the right?

I pulled the piece of paper out of the typewriter and wrote a brand new review with a completely different perspective, with a lot more respect and appreciation for the time and effort and work that went into the album. Whether I liked it or not was almost beside the point. I felt much better about my work and I’m sure my readers got a lot more value out of my more thoughtful and perhaps more thought-provoking review. From that point on, whenever I wrote a review it was with a sense of respect and acknowledgement of the artistic effort that went into the work. But I also knew that, as much as I loved jazz, I was not really qualified to be the type of critic I thought I should be, because I did not understand the fundamentals of actually creating the music. As I moved on in my journalism career, I moved away from criticism and really never went back. Even here at Jazz Collector, you would be hard-pressed in any of my more than 1,500 posts to find any harsh or dismissive comments about any musician attempting to create art of lasting value.

Which brings me back to the new play “At the Table” by Michael Perlman (see, I did it again). I saw the play three times in previews and was truly impressed with every aspect of it. Of course, I’m totally prejudiced—but, to be fair, Michael’s last play, “From White Plains,” won a prestigious GLAAD Media Award and has subsequently been produced all across the country, including theaters in New York, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Ithaca and San Francisco, among others.

Anyway, the play had previews last week and opened on Sunday and the audiences have absolutely loved the play. So the artistic team was anxiously awaiting the reviews, particularly the one from The New York Times. And it came out on Monday. And it was an embarrassment – not to the play and the artistic team, but to The New York Times and the critic who wrote it. She was basically dismissive of the entire play because it was staged in the round and there were times when characters had their backs to certain parts of the audience when they spoke their lines. Which is what happens in theater in the round. She clearly didn’t like the play, which is her right, but give the readers a real reason, give the play some honest thought and criticism. Don’t just casually dismiss the tremendous effort that goes into producing something like this simply because it was staged in the round.

Honestly, this was as poorly done “review” as I have ever seen. Here, read it yourself. (For contrast, here’s another review of the play.) The unfortunate reality is the poor review was in The New York Times, which carries more weight than every other media outlet combined. With the power that The New York Times carries in determining the fate of artistic endeavors, and particularly non-profit theater, they should be much more diligent, responsible and mindful in what they publish. As a long-time editor and journalist, I am embarrassed for my profession because, in my view, The Times abrogated its most basic responsibility to the artistic community and the theater-going public.

On the other hand, I am tremendously proud of my son and the rest of his talented team. What happened was this: The review was so absurd, uninformed and uninformative, that people who had seen the play began spontaneously commenting on The New York Times site. It seems they are not publishing all of the comments, but at this point there are nearly 40 comments that have been posted, and they are very thoughtful and pointed in their discussion and critique of the work – just as the reviewer should have been. Please, take a look at them.

I’m also proud that Michael hasn’t let the laziness and incompetence of a single individual be too discouraging, although it is The New York Times and a weird review like that one is obviously not what you want to appear when you are trying to attract an audience to a new and very thoughtful (and funny!) play. This is what Michael wrote on Facebook yesterday:

Not gonna lie. It’s been a frustrating day. I’ve been frustrated that we as a community feel as though so much stock is put in what one paper says about our work. Frustrated that that one paper can affect whether people choose to come see the work or not. Frustrated that this particular review doesn’t discuss, for better or for worse, the actual work being done and questions being asked. And frustrated that I felt as though I should be ashamed of the review and hide from social media.

But I got an email this morning from a stranger in Hawaii asking if he could read the play. This review piqued his interest, but the comments, he said, made him really want to see what this play was about. So I took a look at the comments and discovered quite a few thoughtful, complex and beautifully written thoughts on the show. And it reminded me that so much of what we’re trying to ask in this play is what happens when we as a culture are no longer interested in one point of view having the loudest voice. And there are currently about 15 people discussing what this play means to them.

So I’m posting the review. If you’ve seen the show, I hope that you will become part of the conversation that’s happening in the comments section – whether you like what we’re doing or not. Be part of the conversation. And if you haven’t seen it, I hope the comments will make you want to see it and participate in the conversation yourselves. And, of course, I hope that if and when the conversation gets large enough, people who want to go to the theater because it is a social event, and perhaps the last art form that MUST be a social event, will see these comments and say “I want to be part of that.” Perhaps we can make the story about the other voices that want to be heard.

I am so tremendously proud of this show and the team that has created it.”

To my friends at Jazz Collector, thank you for indulging a proud father, and please see the play if you’re in New York. For everyone who does a search and finds this article, if you’re in New York between now and July 19, I urge you to see “At the Table” by Michael Perlman. This is a terrific piece of work and I promise you won’t be disappointed.





  • Hopefully can make it to the play in July.

    As to the role of the critic, I believe it is to place the work in context, both historically and among current fellow practitioners’ art, and give people a sense of what’s happening within the work. If one needs to discuss why it may not hold up particularly well, one should say so, but only AFTER trying to place the work in relation to its environment, the artist’s oeuvre as it stands, and so forth. At least that’s what I try to do when I review records and books.

  • Dear sir,your ability to reflect prior to publication is a genuine rarity;the fact that you were able to accept your own musical abilities allowed a freedom from prejudice seldom seen from critcs of any genre.
    I salute the essence of your message
    as it speaks to the main flaws of artistic critique,without denegrating the perp’.
    Bravo and fair tidings.

  • i lived in Syracuse from 1969-1973.10th grade through my first 2 years in college, SUNY@ Morrisville. I was a faithful reader of the New Times and your articles spurred me to explore jazz recordings, I didn’t know this until i read your most recent piece. At the time i was a real record fan but since have branched out and have accumulated a lot of jazz lps. With a collection of 20,000+. Anyway please consider this a much belated thank you note for your early work and know that it had an effect on a high school kid! Thanks.

  • Keith — wow! Thank YOU! You definitely made my day. — al

  • Gregory The Fish

    It’s cool that you would support your son this way, Al. My dad does stuff like this at his job whenever I publish articles on my research, but technical mathematics do not make for interesting reading for many.

    I think the role of the critic is as subjective as the art he or she reviews. Sounds like a lot of critics could take a lesson from you. It is very important to understand the difference between intent and perception. Plenty of people dislike black metal, for example, because of the chaos, and the cold, isolated production. But that’s the whole point! The artist has succeeded!

    Good on you.

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