For 21 years, John Lahr served as the senior drama critic for The New Yorker, the longest run in that post in the magazine’s history. He stepped down from that position in 2013 and, quite appropriately, has now compiled a collection of his extensive profiles of contemporary playwrights and directors as well as his reviews of some of the best Broadway productions of those 21 years by an assortment of other playwrights and directors. And in a somewhat whimsical chapter in the section on playwrights, he includes reviews of recent outstanding productions of the work of a less contemporary playwright, William Shakespeare.
Preparing this book must have been a piece of cake for Lahr, who needed only to gather together his already published material, a far easier task than his last magnum opus, the 600-plus pages of Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which combined his analysis of Williams’s entire dramatic output with a quite revealing account of the playwright’s personal and sexual experiences (with a bibliography and end-notes of over 100 pages.) Lahr spent 12 years writing it while he worked on other projects. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014, and it may very well prove to be the most definitive study of Tennessee Williams ever.
Part I of Joy Ride presents his profiles and interviews with a variety of playwrights, including Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Tony Kushner, David Mamet, Sarah Ruhl, Clifford Odets, David Rabe, Harold Pinter, Wallace Shawn, Neil LaBute and Sam Shepard. He states in his introduction to this section, “By the time I meet my subjects, I’ve read all their press, I know their work, and I know their official stories.” That becomes obvious in the lengthy profiles, some of them 20 to 30 pages long. Each one ends with a review of one or two of the writer’s most successful works. In his treatment of Shakespeare, he reviews outstanding recent productions of “Hamlet,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear.”
A major highlight of the book is the opening chapter, a profile of Arthur Miller, which includes Miller’s explanation when Lahr asks him what Willy Loman is selling in “Death of a Salesman”: “Well, himself. That’s who’s in the valise. You sell yourself. You sell the goods. You become the commodity.” Lahr then offers his own remarkable insights into the play as a product of the spirit of self-aggrandizement of post-war American society and America’s Puritan heritage. He then recounts Miller’s own description of the debut of “Salesman” in Philadelphia in 1947: “The curtain came down and nothing happened. People sat there a good two or three minutes, then somebody stood up with his coat. It was like a funeral.... The cast was back there wondering what had happened.... Finally, someone thought to applaud, and then the house came apart.”
His treatments of various other playwrights offer many a surprising revelation and the occasional delightful anecdote. He summarizes the eight-page letter Tony Kushner wrote when asked by Bill Clinton to submit some ideas for his forthcoming State of the Union address in 1995, which is nothing short of a manifesto of the rights of the working class and the poor and a list of social programs that would radically transform the United States we now know. He points out that David Mamet is the only major American playwright ever to succeed as a screenwriter. He repeats Sarah Ruhl’s account of her response to a poison-pen letter she received in third grade: “I corrected the grammar and sent it back.” In his study of Neil LaBute, who has been called “the angriest white male,” Lahr compares the “moral and emotional nonchalance” of LaBute’s characters to the “amorality and privilege” of the Restoration fops whom LaBute has described as “well-to-do people with time on their hands who go around hurting each other, doing things that are pretty unpleasant, just because the opportunity presents itself.” He points to the “sense of sin” in LaBute’s work. LaBute defines sin as “the inability to imagine the suffering of others.”
Part II offers Lahr’s reviews of specific theatrical productions that “rocked my world.” Reviewing a recent revival of Sondheim’s “Company,” Lahr responds to one critic’s question, “What happened to the good-time musical?” by saying, “Vietnam is what happened.” He writes of the mutation of the musical-theater formula in 1943 in “Oklahoma” as follows: “Anarchic, freewheeling frivolity that traded in joy—in other words, the comedian’s resourcefulness—was renounced for an artful marriage of music and lyrics that traded in narrative. Seriousness replaced sass.”
In Part III Lahr focuses on great theatrical directors with two of his best profiles. He recounts the outstanding career of the director-choreographer Susan Stroman, especially her work with Mel Brooks in his mega-hit, “The Producers,” and her amazing creativity in the Broadway version of Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway.” He also describes the effect on Stroman’s life and work of the early death of both of her husbands and her work on musicals as her “Rx for heart break.” He quotes Stroman’s remark: “Tapping into joy—it saves you.”
Finally, Lahr closes with a 45-page profile of the hugely successful theater and film director Mike Nichols, with what turns out to be a mini-biography of the man. He includes an account of Nichols’s boyhood escape from Nazi Germany, his early sketch-comedy career with Elaine May (and its break-up), his move into his true calling as a triumphant theater director, especially in his work with Neil Simon, and finally his outstanding career in film, beginning with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.” Lahr comes full circle as he concludes his book with a review of Nichols’s direction of the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman.”
Relying on his extensive research and experience, Lahr offers a brilliant combination of dramatic criticism, personal revelations and Broadway history, which takes his readers on a “joyride” to remember.