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The drama after deadline

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MUCH AS one would like to join Edith Piaf in a duet of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," a critic can't help having occasional regrets after passing instantaneous verdicts on scores of plays and musicals, usually in the space of a few morning hours after a deadline-spoiled night's sleep.

Not having had the opportunity to shoot down an Ibsen, as many of the most powerful London theater critics attempted to do when the great Norwegian emerged on their stages, I can't say I'm drowning in remorse for having trashed a major talent. Yes, I have often found the plays of Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute to be manipulative, I don't always think Tony Kushner is dramatically up to the task of his unfailingly big ideas, and I'm on record as saying it's premature to induct Tracy Letts into the pantheon for "August: Osage County."

But these writers are too good not to be challenged. And as my loyalty lies with the art form, not with institutions or individuals, it's my job to swim against the tidal surges of hype and provide honest reflection, although at times it may seem defiant, disagreeable or just plain dyspeptic.

Harder for a critic to cope with are the failures of language that are an inevitable byproduct of rapid-fire daily journalism. In a morning skirmish with adjectives, as my review of "Curtains" at the Ahmanson Theatre was already past deadline, I concluded by saying that for all its faults, the musical has a delirious showbiz quality that's "irresistible." That final word, blurbed as it inevitably was in newspaper ads, overstated my feelings. What I meant to say was "hard to resist" -- and the distinction, hairsplitting though it may sound, was a source of purgatorial torment to me.

There's no way I could have written more favorably or -- phony word alert -- "constructively" about "A Catered Affair" or "Atlanta" or " Ray Charles Live!" -- three musicals that got what they abjectly deserved when I reviewed them last fall.

And I could easily have been harder on Daniel Sullivan's vacuous 2007 production of "Hamlet" at South Coast Repertory -- an outing that left me even more despondent than the melancholy prince.

Curiously, it's not the pans but those reviews that turned out more positive than I intended that nag like a wobbly tooth. Given a second crack, I'd have contextualized my all-too-agreeable appraisal of South Coast Repertory's revival this year of "The Importance of Being Earnest." It was the comparison with Peter Hall's egregiously artificial 2006 production at the Ahmanson that led me to appreciate this more grounded approach, even though it was sometimes feebly executed.

My misdemeanors also include being too nice to veteran virtuosos working with deficient material, such as Rosemary Harris in the Old Globe's "Oscar and the Pink Lady." And when Broadway shows that I loved make their way to our area, I occasionally have difficulty putting aside the memory of my earlier enthusiasm even when the new cast is a few notches below the original (let's be kind and not run down the Ahmanson list).

But permit me to remind myself that cannier critics have had bigger bungles. Shaw shortchanged Shakespeare from time to polemical time, Walter Kerr had a blind spot for Beckett, and Mary McCarthy (in a review of "A Streetcar Named Desire"!) accused Tennessee Williams of "careerism."

Yet their criticism survives because each of these remarkable writers understood that there was something of greater value to their theater writing than fallible opinion. With implacable style, they allow us to observe a mind wrestling with itself, then dare us to join them in the fray.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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