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A CurtainUp Book Review
John Simon On Theater - Criticism 1974-2005
By Elyse Sommer

Time changes, the saying goes, and we change with them. . .some of my present views have evolved in different directions. That change is reflected in certain later reviews. . .and continues as I keep living and learning. Though I am no spring chicken, I hope Applause will someday bring out another collection before I am a dead duck, a book that might surprise the old John Simon no less than the old John Simon reader
--- John Simon's introductory comment to Applause Books' compilation of his theater criticism from 1974 to 2003.

Since writing the above quoted introductory note to Applause Books' anthology of his theater criticism, John Simon was threatened with earlier than expected lame duck status when he was summarily fired from his long-held post as New York Magazine's theater critic. However, unlike many another senior citizen, Simon quickly found another employer,, and so, though I've noticed him walking a bit more gingerly since his hip operation, the rapier-witted critic has made a good start towards turning out enough copy for another book to be published before he becomes a "lame duck."

Whether the current doorstop of a book will warrant more of the same is another matter. An 826-page book of one critic's theater reviews, even though always elegantly written and often controversial, isn't exactly the stuff of a "good read." Even when a critic's style is incisive and compelling enough for a review to be worth reading even after a recommendation to see or not see a play has become irrelevant, the theater going public does tend to be interested in a critic's opinions either before or shortly after seeing the work being critiqued.

While John Simon is certainly one of our most readable critics -- a gifted wordsmith who's not afraid to raise hackles (and often does) -- John Simon on Theater, which includes twenty-nine years' worth of his theater criticism but without any gossipy reminiscences or authorial footnotes, is probably going to land on more library reference room shelves than theater enthusiasts' coffee tables. Still, it's a valuable record of one man's untiring examination of productions seen both on and off Broadway over three decades.

Those who do buy the book will probably read it in spurts. In the event that it comes out as a paperback it's still likely to be too heavy to tuck into a bag for subway and bus reading.

What may turn out to be the biggest surprise to all who think of John Simon as acerbic and mean-spirited is that, for all the curmudgeonly diatribes against those who don't meet his standards of excellence, what comes through is a genuine love for the theater. The less well known actors and playwrights who've found themselves skewered in reviews that seem written in poisoned blood can take heart that the likes of Al Pacino, Angela Langsbury, Liza Minelli and Edward Albee have been famously Simonized. On the other hand, as Simon never cloaks his damns with faint praise. When praise he does, he goes all out -- as he has with playwrights like Alan Ayckbourn and Kenneth Lonergan.

Reading the reviews, whether from page 1 to page 826 or hopscotching back and forth, one gets a clear picture of Simon's pet peeves, with the one probably at the top of his list being the subversion of the works of playwrights like Shakespeare and Moliere. The famous mean-spiritedness is most obvious in his coverage of such downtown, cutting edge enterprises as the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman's Ontological Theater. Simon seems to have been vaccinated for permanent immunity to liking anything about these companies' multi-media productions. Thus, while he can surprise you by responding to a show you're sure he would dismiss, his visits to these avant-garde groups seems to be motivated by a desire to show off his ability to cleverly draw more blood from an already bloodied victim.

On balance, the collection reinforces Mr. Simon's reputation as an astute and fearless critic. Whether you find his comments about actors' personal appearances inappropriate and hateful or not, or disdain him as a homophobic, there's no nay saying his erudition or impeccable command of English (plus the foreign languages that evident in the foreignisms with which he often peppers his reviews). His reviews address all aspects of a production with care, and budding critics could learn much from his pithy and never repetitive comments about the director and his designers. As for this volume's reference value, theater libraries will probably buy it despite the fact that this is a lazy volume by any reference librarian's standards. Surely Applause Books could have assigned some editors to provide the missing ingredients.

The index is slipshod and unhelpful. It is simply a list of the plays reviewed -- thus, if you want to look up what was said about a playwright, unless you have the names of that writer's titles at your fingertips, you're out of luck in quickly locating a pertinent review. Getting to what Simon had to say about certain actors and directors, is equally difficult -- for example, unless you know that his famous slaughter of Liza Minella occurred when he reviewed The Act, you're also unlikely to quickly find his equally famous and hilarious imaginary interview with "Miss Sabina Haribson, the well-known Patagonian press agent" (one of the book's few non-review items).

While you might agree that the reviews speak for themselves as the author briefly and modestly states in his single paragraph author's note, it would not have been amiss to append each piece with the source (some of the pieces are from Hudson Review and National Review) date as is usual in these type of compilation. An anthology of the works of a man to whom excellence is a cardinal virtue deserves no less.

In case you're curious about Mr. Simon's views on film and music, Applause has published companion volumes on his writings on those genres. These are a tad slimmer -- the film book runs 672 pages and his music criticism a mere 512 pages.

John Simon on Theater, Criticism 1974-2005
Applause Books, hard cover, published July 2005
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