Judge Not?

Carrie Greanlea (Leigh Williams) is a caustic opera critic, brutal with a pen. She is married to Norman (Zac Hoogendyk), yet another opera critic. Unlike Norman, who questions his own competence, Carrie is unwaveringly and remorselessly critical of everything from Norman’s sperm count to the size of performers’ noses. The thing is, when it comes to arts criticism, she’s usually right. Carrie likely would have been quite disappointed with Critical Mass, the play of her own creator. The premise of Joanne Sydney Lessner’s slight work is that Carrie has, with a single review in Opera World, destroyed the career of Stefano Donato (Aaron Davis), an Italian tenor of questionable talent. Stefano, feigning destitution due to the toll that Carrie’s lacerating piece has exacted on his career, takes revenge by finding out where the critical duo lives. Suitcases in hand, Stefano proceeds to hijack their personal and professional lives, hinting at ominous Mafia repercussions should they decline to take him in. Like The Godfather’s Don Vito Corleone, Stefano makes them an offer they can’t refuse.

A major problem with the absurdly themed Critical Mass is that it’s not nearly farcical enough in its execution. Ms. Williams, a major character, is the weak link in the thematic chain; misdirected by Donald Brenner, she plays the shrewish, angry Carrie to the hilt, but her humorlessness torpedoes the part and, with it, the entire play. What we need from Ms. Leigh’s Carrie is a little I Love Lucy; what we get is a lot of Nancy Grace.

And Mr. Davis’ awful accent is almost unbearable. He overacts cravenly; fortunately, his character is somewhat likable. The standout performance here is that of Marc Geller as Cedric West, the editor of Opera World. Mr. Geller does his best with Lessner’s stereotyped writing – he’s gay and effeminate and channels Bette Davis. Chris Menard’s terrific scenic design truly gives the set the feel of a contemporary urban apartment.

It’s not entirely clear to me what Ms. Lessner (who reviews for Opera News) wants to say about critics of the arts. Should they pull punches to spare the feelings of artists about whom they write? Lessner vilifies Carrie for sticking to her guns, and pre-sets her as a miserable, bitter person. Yet, Lessner appears to praise the spineless Norman for letting his feelings (and other people) influence his critical opinions. And, at least through Stefano’s character, Ms. Lessner seems to advance the parental edict, “If you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say anything.”

Sure, a negative review can dishearten, but so can a disappointing play; one should rightly expect more from the winner of Heiress Productions' year-and-a-half long playwriting competition. To Lessner’s apparent guideline above a critic might counter: “Why bother putting up a very mediocre play in the first place?” Though it’s crisply written, Critical Mass is chock full of stale characters and warmed-over jokes.

The cynical – the Carrie - part of me wonders whether Ms. Lessner, by preemptively hammering at critics, hopes to inoculate this play from the inevitable barbs. In the end, Critical Mass is an overlong one-trick pony. It’s got enough fuel for one act but its three punish the limits of reasonableness.

As Carrie at one point lectures Stefano: “Look, if you’re going to worship at the shrine of art, if you’re going to attempt to make a play for the pantheon of greatness, you have to be prepared to work hard and be prepared to be judged”. Having reiterated that, please don’t tell Ms. Lessner where I live.

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