One thing, at least, is clear: A five-star rating means an extraordinary production of an extraordinary play. For example: The Normal Heart, which I saw at freeFall Theatre in February, 2014, and which I confidently awarded five stars with my review. The freeFall production of Larry Kramer’s play was unusually forceful: It looked at the early days of the AIDS crisis with rage and pity, and offered Eric Davis, Roxanne Fay, and Jim Sorensen (among a large and talented cast) the opportunity to passionately argue for honesty and action. Larry Silverberg’s direction was taut, all the design elements were top-notch; this was clearly a special production. Two years after I saw it, I still remember its desperate force.
A four-and-a-half star play is almost as good, but lacks one or two important features. Take Jitney, which I just saw earlier this month at American Stage. This luminous production mesmerized its audience with nine astonishing impersonations of the men and woman associated with a gypsy cab company in Pittsburgh. Boasting August Wilson’s poetic dialogue and so much splendid acting, why did it miss that final half-star? Two reasons: an overly expedient dramatic question, about the demolition of the cab company’s building, was never truly resolved; and the ending that Wilson wrote occurred “accidentally,” that is, without being earned. These weren’t game-changing flaws, but they kept the play from being a complete experience of artistic success.
The more flaws, the fewer stars. A four-star play like Lights Rise on Grace, offered last year at Stageworks, was wonderfully acted, impeccably directed by Karla Hartley, but the unusual subject matter of the play — a love triangle between a young Asian-American woman, a black man and the white lover whom he first met in prison — was so far from most people’s experience, it came across as a case study: fascinating but distant. Somewhat stronger reservations are intended by a three-and-a-half star review, such as the one I wrote about Jobsite Theater’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch way back in 2013. Here one terrific performance — Spencer Meyers’s Hedwig — along with David Jenkins’s fine video design was undercut by mediocre songs and a handful of plot elements that went nowhere. A three-star review suggests further insufficiencies, such as those found in (much of) the acting, the set design, and the somewhat musty text of Tampa Rep’s The Children’s Hour a few months ago. True, the play brought us two first-class performances (Katie Castonguay and Olivia Sargent) and there was some real suspense as the narrative proceeded. But social progress had rendered a lot of the text obsolete, and the lackluster set and some superficial performances were a stubborn imposition on our suspension of disbelief. By the time we get to even fewer stars, there are a lot of things going wrong: the not-funny humor of American Stage’s The 39 Steps (two-and-a-half stars), the dramatic redundancies and dreadful set of TRT2’s Tender Napalm (two stars), and — well, I’ll leave the failings of one- and one-and-a-half-star shows to the reader’s imagination. And I can think of one production — I’m not naming names — that deserved no stars at all.
So that’s it: No doubt subjective, no doubt arguable with other critics. But I try to be utterly honest in evaluating each play I see, and often surprise myself with my likes and dislikes.
And just for the record: I’d love to see nothing but five-star shows every week.
Because, just like other spectator, I go to the theater for a good time.