The normally placid Los Angeles theatre world became a battleground recently when Charles Marowitz, artistic director of the just-opened Malibu Stage Co. (and a former drama critic for the L.A. Herald Examiner), lit into Michael Phillips, lead drama critic of the Los Angeles Times. Phillips had written a negative review of Stage Fright, the new play written and directed by Marowitz which just had its world premiere in Malibu. Stage Fright deals with the relationship between actors and critics in sardonic, blackly comic fashion, positing a situation in which a husband-and-wife acting team (played by Nan White and Alan Mandell) take prisoner a critic (Jeremy Lawrence) who has given them vituperative reviews in past years. The actors get their revenge by punishing him both verbally and physically, even as he continues to berate them (and most actors) for being second-rate talents.
Phillips charged Marowitz with taking aim at actors as "elocutionary-minded fuds" and having "cheap, nasty fun at their expense." He also attacked Marowitz for launching MSC's first season with a play of his own, implying that he was on an extended ego trip. His dismissive review was published under the heading "Stage Fright scares away a fun opportunity."
Marowitz's reply was published as a Counterpunch feature in the Times. In it he denied making fun of actors, explaining that "one of the major points of the piece is to pit the actors' integrity and commitment to their art against the abuses and injustices inflicted upon them by critics. The play, by the way, comes down on neither side."
Marowitz then accused Phillips of slovenly journalism for failing to write "a word about these actors' actual performances," even though they are long-established players. He also rebuked Phillips on another major point: "Walking into L.A.'s newest theatre and Malibu's first professional playhouse, which has been five years in the making, you would think a critic on one of California's leading newspapers might allude, even in passing, to the nature of the space and its prospects for the community. But Phillips is too busy stropping his razor to realize he is bleeding from half a dozen nicks."
Marowitz defended himself from charges of having mounted a vanity production by pointing out that such writer/directors as Moliere, Bertolt Brecht, Roger Planchon and Alan Ayckbourn have all headed their own theatres. "Shouldering beneath his snideness," Marowitz said, "is bitterness and contempt that a critic should have the audacity to wear two, even three hats."Marowitz concluded by stating that Phillips was too "befogged" to understand "the dialectical conflict that has traditionally existed between artists and critics." To appreciate that, Marowitz said, "one needs to be something of either an artist or a critic, and Phillips fails on both counts."
-- By Willard Manus
Southern California Correspondent