Theater Critics Camp Diary: Last Acts

For two weeks all anyone's talked about is the imminent arrival of the award-winning New York critic known for his brutal critiques of "critic fellows" here at the Theater Farm. He's so tough, they say, he's made professional journalists cry as he ruthlessly dissects their prose syllable by syllable.

"Das Rheingold," as I'll call him, gets to camp a night early, and I'm seated next to him in the dismal dining hall where we poke at our nightly plates of stewed offal. Let me paint the picture: He's about 60, stoop-shouldered, gray of tooth, with a complexion the color of a hospital blanket. He's in a wormy-patterned brown cotton shirt, navy polyester pants shiny with wear, droopy argyle socks and shoes of indeterminate style, age and color. From the scalp down, he sags. Based on his posture and physique, I can say with some certainty that the only exercise he gets is occasionally typing in all caps.

He's known as a walking history of the American musical and can sing obscure tunes from shows that haven't graced a stage since World War I. "A genius," our elderly mentor-in-charge has told us. "One of the great minds in theater."

I introduce myself, and he reaches down to finger my name badge, which hangs on a lanyard around my neck (we are tagged dawn to dusk, lest one of us wanders off the property and has to be returned by a local). "Dallas Observer," he says, sucking in his thick, pale cheeks. "That's in Florida, right?"

For the "genius," I determine to write a killer review. Our assignment is to see yet another new play being staged at Playwrights Camp, just like we've done every night, and stay up till dawn typing our evaluation. Tonight's offering is just as depressing as all the others, a drama about the black plague. Or maybe it's the flu epidemic of 1918 or the first wave of AIDS in the 1980s. My mind wanders the first time someone onstage coughs and says, "No, I'm sure I'll be all right."

Living in the hell-dorm in the heat wave has diminished my usually reliable reviewing skills. For a week I've been doing "drag queen writing": Looks great late at night; by day, not so pretty. But tonight I really work at every word.

In the morning we gather at the sticky picnic tables in the tick-laden field. Das Rheingold is already there, reading printouts of our reviews by holding them two inches from his rheumy eyes. The seven of us (Dr. Nosejob decamped to the West Coast when the temp hit 100) gather in silence, waiting for the ritual reaming to begin.

Mine is third in the lineup. The first two have been not-so-gently torn apart, leaving their writers blinking blankly into the thick morning haze. I read my review aloud (as we must) and look up at Das Rheingold for reaction. He says, "Short, fast and funny. Just what I wanted. Very Dorothy Parker. Next?"

That's it? I look at my fellow fellows. D-Word, the gay Yalie with a fear of flora and fauna, purses his lips. Whiney McKnuck starts cracking finger joints like she's loading a derringer. Biff smiles and gives me a thumbs up.

In the words of Stuart Smalley, I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, by golly, people like me. OK, I'm just good enough and smart enough. Nobody here likes me except Das Rheingold, but his liking my work means enough to make up for being on personality probation.

I'm still riding the high the next day when we convene at Monte Cristo, the two-story summer home where young Eugene O'Neill lived with his family in the early 1900s. Read the opening lines of the epic Long Day's Journey into Night, and they describe the house and its contents, right down to the windows and the wicker chairs, one of which I'm sitting in as we critics begin to read the play aloud. A noted theater director is the day's mentor. He assigns us roles--I'm the morphine-addicted mother, Mary Tyrone; Biff plays my husband, James.

An actor I'm not. But as the director leads us through scenes, moving us around the room and making us repeat lines off-book until we've memorized pages of the script, I get swept into the emotions unfolding between the troubled Tyrones (who are the O'Neills). It starts to feel real, and at the end of one confrontation scene, I'm in tears, my hands shaking.

This is why I love the theater, moments like these, which are rare but cherished. Usually I'm watching from a seat on the aisle. But on this day, I'm onstage, feeling the feelings and speaking the words of a great playwright. Not to say my acting is any good, but for a few fleeting seconds, I have physically and emotionally clicked into the magic of a great piece of American drama.

It's good for a critic to understand how hard it is to act, how excruciatingly delicate is that line between acting and being. More than the rave from Das Rheingold, this is the best lesson to take home from Theater Camp. Unfortunately, the day at Monte Cristo isn't the finale. In their lousy anti-climactic scheduling, there is another full day of camp to come, including sitting through a musical based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Can't do it. I pack up my stuff, check out of the dorm and into a nearby Red Roof Inn for a bubble bath and a night on a king-sized bed. I'm done. One day short of "graduation," I become a Theater Critics Camp dropout. A terse e-mail from the camp director informs me that by leaving a day early, I'll be denied the "certificate of certification."

Which means, I suppose, that I won't be able to do warranty repair work, write prescriptions or review plays in the state of Connecticut. --Elaine Liner

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