Theater Critics Camp, Day 2

I was always very good about playing well with others. Until I was 35. After that, my give-a-shitter about group dynamics plumb gave out.

Here at Theater Critics Camp in New England, I'm reminded of the saying from Sartre: Hell is other people.

Amend that: Hell is other people who are theater critics.

The voices in my head have attached nicknames to my group of "critic fellows." There's Whiney McKnuck, a pale and undernourished actress-turned-critic who's a chronic whiner and knuckle-cracker; Dr. Nosejob, the retired surgeon-turned-critic, who asks annoyingly amateur questions such as "How do I take notes in the dark?" and "What's a press kit?"; and D-Word, the �ber-gay Yalie fond of bragging about his degree in "dramaturgy." (Ever seen a want ad for a dramaturg? Yeah, thought not.)

I can't help staring at one of the group's two college seniors, "Biff," who looks like a young Paul Newman and is probably the only budding critic in the nation who's a college football quarterback and rugby champ. He was accepted to one of the service academies but chose to study theater and journalism at a small liberal arts college instead, a decision he tells me made his dad stop speaking to him for an entire year.

We spend all day and most of the evening hours at the farm where critics, actors and playwrights attend simultaneous two-week workshops. Actors rehearse the playwrights' new works and we see and critique them nightly. (Tonight's play: 9/11 as told by Scheherazade. It concludes with a deafening BOOM!)

We sit all morning on wooden benches at picnic tables in sweltering heat in an open field, parsing a review by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles of an Emmylou Harris concert. It's a tight, poetic piece of writing, full of word pictures and insights into Harris' special magic as a singer. Whiney McK, popping joints like walnuts, opines that the review is crap, full of "obscure" references to musicians she's never heard of, including the Carter Family.

"Ever heard of Reese Witherspoon?" I ask. She has. "Well," I say, "she just won an Oscar for playing a member of the Carter Family in Walk the Line. They're pretty famous."

"Bullshit!" shouts the nasal knuckle-snapper about two inches from my sunburned face.

Ah, if she doesn't know it, it doesn't deserve to be known.

I am operating on nine minutes of sleep. My un-air-conditioned dorm room at the nearby college is so hot I worry about leaving my laptop in there. I worry about leaving hairspray in there.

The Pareles debate goes on for several centuries, and I start staring into the sun trying to burn my retinas. I hear Dr. Nosejob ask a 10-part question about negative reviews. His contention is that it's better not to write a review at all than to write a pan. We spend another hour or seven debating the merits of the slammin' pan review.

Lunch and dinner at the big yellow farmhouse: gray noodles, gray sauce, peas so dry they pucker like tiny green prunes. I eat an apple and some saltines.

So hot in the dining hall I sweat from my earlobes.

Back in the field endless debate erupts over writing in the "historical present" or the passive voice. D-Word squeals like a girl when a spider the size of a bread crumb falls out of a tree and onto his arm.

After dinner, rather than wait 40 minutes for the inmate van to ferry me back to the hell-dorm, I call a local cab, an act regarded with much suspicion by scowling Theater Camp Directors.

I ask my cabdriver: "What are the good restaurants around here?"

Cabdriver: "I don't eat out."

I have him stop at a pharmacy so I can stock up on tick repellent. We received pages of printed warnings today about the dangers of Lyme disease and the prevalence of Lyme ticks in the open field where we conduct our daily discussions. If D-Word gets a tick, he'll have a nervous breakdown. I buy extra bug juice.

The voices in my head give me a nickname, too: Miss Crankypants.

Tomorrow: A summer festival of tragedies. --Elaine Liner

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