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A CurtainUp Book Review
Hot Seat : Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993

By Elyse Sommer

Publication and Ordering Information
This collection of Frank Rich's reviews and essays culled from his 15 years as chief drama critic of The New York Times may just be one of those surprise hits to naysay the poor sales of most such anthologies. After all, Rich was something of a celebrity critic and his well-known tag as the "Butcher of Broadway" didn't hurt his name recognition. What's more, unlike critics who either grow old and crotchety in the job, Rich did not allow himself to grow stale and tired covering what can be a draining steady beat but hung up his critic's hat voluntarily and while still young enough to move on to another influential job as a Times op-ed columnist. In short, he's not a faded old-timer dusting off his dated scribblings, but a very visible player on the cultural and political scene.

Spanning Rich's 1980-93 tenure, these reviews and essays are old enough to provide a window to shows you may have missed and recent enough to be reminders of shows seen (the emphasis depending on the reader's theater going during this period). With revivals of both plays and musicals more rampant than ever and many of the other trends foreseen in Rich's essays escalating, much of this tome's content will also serve as a reference to the current and upcoming season. To illustrate:
Reading Hot Seat during a weekend after covering two less than enthralling musical revivals (Little Me and On the Town ) gave particular relevance to the "What Makes a Play Seem Dated? essay analyzing the 1980 season's flood and caliber of revivals. His reviews of Anything Goes, Crazy For You and Guys and Dolls serve as hopeful reminders that there are enough old classics with time-transcending legs.

The postscript to the author's Nicholas Nickleby review (negative) gives interesting insights into how hype can sell out a show even with a $100 ticket price. While Rich changed his mind about Nicholas when it was revived, I wouldn't be surprised if he does an op-ed column on the hype currently making I>The Blue Room (adapted by David Hare and starring Nicole Kidman) the hottest ticket in town (with rumors of outrageous scalpers' prices abounding). It also led me to another look at the critic's much written about review of David Hare's The Secret Rapture.

With Kevin Spacey's much praised Hickey propelling the London revival of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh to New York, a look at Rich's opinions of his previous theater work seemed in order -- as one of the sons in Long Day's Journey into Night and the comic relief uncle in Lost In Yonkers.
Instead of detailing any more specific plays or actors to be met in this remembrance of plays past I should amend my statement that I read the book during a weekend. More accurately, I browsed it quite thoroughly for this book hardly makes for beginning to end reading like a novel or a biography or a book of essays and short stories. Theater reviews when read in large doses tend to be hard on the literary digestion, no matter how well written (and Rich does indeed write well).

Hot Seat is quite a different kettle of fish from Broadway from 1900 to 1974 by Rich's long-ago predecessor Brooks Atkinson. This was a history and thus a more straightforward "read." Hot Seat, on the other hand, is basically an anthology of what Rich deems his best revie ws and essays, with new comments ranging from a sentence to three or four paragraphs appended to some but not all reviews. Most readers will move through the rather daunting 1000+ pages by reading these comments and the various essays and take in the reviews in occasional doses. It's also not a bedtime"read" by sheer virtue of its heft which makes it easier to read in a sitting than a slouched down in bed position.

While this anthology is a valuable theatrical roundup of a specific time period, by a man in an influential position, it has several major failings as a reference book.

The most egregious omission pertains to the Table of Contents which lists the seasons but not the plays covered. The play titles did get into print but only on the back cover and in excruciatingly small gold type against a black background which makes for a handsome cover but does little for easy reading. At a list price of $39.95 and over a thousand pages, surely this is not the place to save on an extra couple of pages.

While the various lists in the appendix are fun, they don't compensate for the absence of more insights into Mr. Rich's world as the head of the Times drama desk. The essays and comments do reveal much about what shaped his tastes and career., There are some personal details (i.e. attacks by some well known personalities based on his relationship with his current wife, Alex Witchel) to make Rich personally knowable. However, while we get a picture of the dominance of his editor-in-chief, Arthur Gelb, we get nary a glimpse of his interaction with the rest of the people on the theatrical beat. Surely a brand-new essay shedding more light on the day to day doings in the Times drama and his relationship with his colleagues would hardly have taxed this prolific writer's time too heavily. To end where I began, Hot Seat may, by virtue of its author's visibility on the cultural horizon and despite my quibbles, be a book theater buffs simply can't be without. Even if it doesn't make the best seller list, it's hardly going to go the route of the Rich list of fabulous flops (Marlowe, Moose Murders, Private Lives, Marilyn and Carriez0.

Publication and Ordering Information

By Frank Rich
Random House
Hardcover, 1152 pages
Official Publication Date: 10/22/98
Reviewed 11/30 /98 by Elyse Sommer Available at Amazon/CurtainUp Book Store ($11 discount from list price).

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© Elyse Sommer, November 1998