Love him or hate him, there's no denying the vast influence Frank Rich wielded as chief drama critic for the New York Times. Those he praised usually enjoyed great success; those he damned accused him of conspiring against their productions. Now, here's a volume, almost forbidding in length, that encompasses his work over 14 theater seasons. More than 330 reviews and articles brimming with plays and players, shows and showmen--famous and obscure, enduring and forgotten. Readers are likely to find something that--depending on their vintage--serves as a discovery or a reminder. Do you recall that Mike Nichols and Elaine May once appeared in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The 1980 production accentuated Edward Albee's dark comedy, but left Rich "hungry for blood.") Or that FOB in the very same year launched the New York career of David Henry Hwang ("an unwieldy, at times spotty work"--one that nonetheless "hits home far more often than it misses"). Jump forward eight years to the same playwright's M. Butterfly and the circle is complete, as Rich lavishes praise upon Hwang's work, calling it one of his favorite new plays. Whatever readers may think of Rich's opinions (and he isn't shy about sharing them), they'll delight in his prose--at once witty and illuminating, sympathetic and sarcastic.
Revealed too in this tome is Rich's admiration and love for several mentors and peers, exemplified in moving tributes to the legendary critics Kenneth Tynan and Walter Kerr. Also poignant are footnotes to several reviews, outlining the real-life tragedies that befell mighty showmen like Gower Champion of 42nd Street. Rich traces the terrible toll AIDS has taken on Broadway, describing an era in which the celebrated and the unsung alike succumbed to the epidemic. Little wonder then, that Tony Kushner's Angels in America, rooted in the age of AIDS, makes such a profound impression on the critic: "I was so overwhelmed by Angels after a matinee in London that I canceled my theatergoing plans for that night; I needed time to think." All this makes Hot Seat more than just a compendium of reviews. It serves as a history and a highly entertaining read rolled into one, a portrait of the theater and, ultimately, of the critic himself. --Roy Wadia