Seeing Stars: Mark Leib explains how he assigns theater ratings

One star? Five stars? How does he decide?

click to enlarge freeFall’s The Normal Heart earned five stars from Leib in 2014. - Mike Wood Lighting
Mike Wood Lighting
freeFall’s The Normal Heart earned five stars from Leib in 2014.

Just think what goes into a show: script, acting, direction, set, costume and sound design, lighting — and in some cases lyrics, music, singing and choreography. A typical theater event has so many elements, it’s unlikely they’ll all turn out positive or negative. So it’s not at all unusual for a critic like myself to see a second-rate play featuring a mix of brilliant and merely adequate acting, sharply directed on a beautiful set, but weakened by thoughtless costuming and primitive lighting.

Then it’s my job to provide a rating that somehow will communicate to the reader the overall quality of this farrago. If the text of the play is worthy of three-and-a-half stars, the acting four stars and the design two, does that mean I should average it all out in order to come up with a rating? What if the script is so excellent that it speaks its truth stunningly in spite of the acting? What if the acting is so inspired, it dazzles and dizzies in spite of the text?  

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. 

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