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Up until now, the Charles Isherwood era at the New York Times theater desk had only had one real standout moment. No, not his snooty review of Fuerzabruta, as awesome as it was. Isherwood, who started reviewing for the Times in 2004, is best known for his unhinged, unqualified rave of Will Eno’s Off Broadway monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing). Isherwood’s review was the kind of breathless, over-the-top lovefest that instantly sells out a show; it’s widely remembered in New York’s theatrical community as the review that sent thousands of bewildered Upper West Siders downtown. (“Many people are still scratching their heads over his almost Olympian celebration of an inscrutable monologue a few years ago at a Union Square theater,” playwright Jon Robin Baitz wrote in a recent appraisal of the critic on HuffPo.)
Well, it’s been almost three years, and Isherwood has finally found a new king to crown. Today’s review of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County should have the Telecharge phones ringing off their hooks.
We freely admit we haven’t seen the show, but we’re fascinated by the review. Isherwood follows his Thom Pain template closely. There’s the freely delivered boldface blurb. Thom Pain: “Run, don’t walk. Four stars. Plus an extra. If you care about theater, blah blah blah.” August: “The most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.”
There’s the soft-pedaling of the reasons many audience members might not actually like the show that much. Thom Pain: “‘Thom Pain (based on nothing)’ is, as noted above, a solo show. But don’t turn the page just yet. Mr. Eno and his performer, the actor James Urbaniak, hereby reinvent that seemingly moribund theatrical genre.” August: “And so, needlessly, pointlessly and endlessly, Violet sets about psychologically flaying her nearest and dearest, one by one, taking impotent revenge for the miseries of her life by picking at the scabs of everyone else’s. The results are as harrowing as they are hilarious.”
Embarrassingly, there’s even the same rhetorical trick of Isherwood seemingly overcoming his own reservations to make a bold proclamation. In his Thom Pain review, Isherwood wrote: “Mr. Eno might be called a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. Let’s try that again, minus the conditional: Mr. Eno is a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” And in his August review, here’s the exact same construction: “‘August’ is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.”
Yes, yes, we get it, Charles Isherwood. It’s not that you like being a kingmaker. It’s just that these plays are so good that you can’t help it. We guess we shouldn’t be so grudging about a reviewer actually being excited about a show, especially one who, as Baitz and many, many others have pointed out, often seems allergic to new and difficult work. God knows the theater business needs the help; after all, Broadway is so moribund that the best way Isherwood can think of to drum up excitement for August is by claiming it’s just as good as sitting on your couch watching a DVD of your favorite TV show. (Except that you have to go out in the cold, and sit in uncomfortable seats, and it costs $100, of course.) Let’s hope August really is that good, and this won’t go down as another Charles Isherwood head-scratcher.
Earlier: Please Do Not Approach Charles IsherwoodCharles Isherwood Declares ‘August: Osage County’ the Next ‘Thom Pain’