Sunday 30 September 2018

Critic's Choice by Ira Levin

We continue my survey of the writings of the great Ira Levin with another one of his plays. Critic's Choice was his third Broadway production after No Time for Sergeants (1955) a hit comedy; and Interlock (1958), an under-appreciated psychological drama.

Critic's Choice, which appeared in 1960, is again a comedy, and it's an absolute cracker (audiences thought so, too — the show was another hit). Levin here takes up the challenge of writing about a drama critic, Parker Ballantine whose wife Angela has written a play of her own. 

Angela's play is, to say the least, not great. But it is surprisingly fast-tracked into production and bound for Broadway, leaving Parker with the dilemma of what to do. Does he review the play and tell the truth, jeopardising his marriage? Or does he chicken out, and compromise his principles?

The sequences where Angela is happily bashing out her masterwork has a fascinating, and hilarious, parallel in Levin's later triumph Deathtrap — which features two writers in competition rather than a writer and critic warily circling each other.

There is also a pre-echo of Deathtrap in the wickedly funny scene in Critic's Choice where the maid answers the phone and gives a quick summary of where everyone is, in exactly the manner Parker described as a howling cliché.

What's more, Critic's Choice interestingly prefigures Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, both in the egregious clunkiness of the play-within-a-play and (spoiler alert) in the wife's infidelity. 

Yes, Angela has a fling with the director of her play, the marvellously realised Dion Kapakos, a pretentious wunderkind who keeps banging on about "roots" and authenticity. He is, of course, a big phony.

Levin's play is packed with wonderful characters — and they're not just charged with comic potential: everyone is real and solid and three dimensional and has a valid point of view. ("I'm listening to me for a change," says Angela, who is sick of just being a housewife.) 

These characters include Parker's ex-wife Ivy, a glamorous actress, who has just had a flop of her own ("There are some books that simply cannot be made into musical comedies and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of them"); his precocious son John, who is a budding critic himself and earns money selling his dad zingers to use in his reviews; and his mother in law Charlotte who advises Parker that if he goes ahead with his review he'll have "more integrity and less wife than any man in town."

Of course, what counts in a comedy is being funny. And Ira Levin hit a home run in this regard. But what really elevates Critic's Choice is some underlying seriousness and  — take note, Dion Kapakos — authenticity. 

It's a mark of distinction that Parker has genuine, and believable, reasons for sticking to his guns and inviting disaster by reviewing his wife's play, rather than just behaving in an arbitrary fashion to suit the needs of the plot.

Surprisingly, the original Broadway production was directed by Otto Preminger, a high-powered movie maker (Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus) who specialised in much more heavy material. Apparently Ira Levin and Preminger met when Levin's first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, was published and the director considered filming it. Levin went on to write an early draft of Preminger's film Bunny Lake is Missing.

Needless to say, Otto Preminger did not direct the Bob Hope and Lucille Ball movie version of Critic's Choice — which I might well report on in this continuing overview of the magnificent Ira Levin.

(Image credits: The very dull Random House cover is from Wikipedia. The Dramatists Play Service edition is from Between the Covers Rare Books at ABE.  The cover and photo from the theatre programme — or theater program — for the London production at the Vaudeville is from my own collection. The Playbill cover is from Amazon. The DVD cover is also from Amazon. The newspaper clipping is courtesy of the official Ira Levin website — many thanks indeed to them for providing this. If you're squinting at it trying to read the caption, it features Preminger, actress Gena Rowlands — who actually dropped out of the play before the opening — and the mighty Mr Levin himself.)

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