Michael Kahn can quote the first review he ever got as a student director in the 1960s. It was cruel.
“You remember the bad ones,” the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director says, waxing on about reviews for an hour in his office.
The occasion is Kahn’s staging of “The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound,” a century-hopping comic double bill of British writers taking on reviewers. (It starts Jan. 5 in the STC’s Lansburgh Theatre.) “The Critic” is a wicked sendup of theater and its observers by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (“The School for Scandal,” “The Rivals”), who swapped comedy for a political career in Parliament shortly after this play appeared. The 1779 satire features a vapid critic named Dangle and his pal Sneer watching a rehearsal of a new extravaganza from critic-playwright Mr. Puff. Sheridan’s script is being newly adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, who reworked Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” for Kahn in 2012.
“The Real Inspector Hound” was written by a young Tom Stoppard in 1968, and it crosses an Agatha Christie/Arthur Conan Doyle-style whodunit with the spectacle of two theater critics becoming dangerously involved in the show. It’s a clever prank from an emerging playwright who had been reviewing theater himself.
Jewel that it is, the edge can be sharp. Whenever Hatcher has seen “Hound” he’s noticed that even the designers get in on the ridicule, conspiring to give the critics an unflattering appearance. “You could tell that a lot of people were getting out their frustration,” Hatcher says.
“If I go to one more dinner party and somebody asks me what I think about the critics, I’m going to scream,” says Kahn, whose relationship with Washington Post reviewers has ranged from cordial to contentious since he arrived here more than 25 years ago. “All that people ever ask actors is, ‘How do you learn your lines?’ And to me they say, ‘What do you think about the critics?’ ”
When he ran the American Shakespeare Theatre in the 1970s, critics came to Stratford, Conn., to see the plays. Kahn used to invite them to his house for a drink, where everyone chatted socially (not about the shows).
“They were like human beings,” Kahn says, not making a joke. “I would get 20 reviews, and if two of them were alike, it was incredible. It was like everybody had been to different plays. So I began to understand that.”
Martin Gottfried once wrote a review so scathing of a Kahn production that the director elaborately thought, “How can I put on shoes that don’t fit my feet, and gloves that don’t have any DNA, and a mask, and get to Brooklyn by a variety of ways that nobody would see me . . . and kill him?”
One year Kahn felt it might be safe, since he hadn’t staged anything recently, to read New York magazine’s notoriously devastating John Simon. Yet to the critic’s dissatisfaction, Steve Tesich’s “The Carpenters” was being directed by Eugene Lesser, which gave Simon occasion to go after Kahn this way: “With Michael Kahn and Eugene Lesser both on the Juilliard drama faculty, I urge the drama students to transfer to music forthwith.”
Kahn had been considering the Sheridan and Stoppard plays ever since “The Critic” was part of the STC’s “Re-Discovery” series several years ago. For this co-production with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (where the production moves in late February), Hatcher is cutting “The Critic” down from roughly 20 actors to something that can be performed by just the same eight actors doing “Hound.”
“By necessity it became something different,” Kahn says. “How do four people do an epic, instead of 22?”
Theatrical in-jokes are hardwired into both shows, as is turning the tables on reviewers. That wouldn’t be personal, would it?
Hatcher notes that the archetype for critics is slashing and cold, a breed personified by Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve.” (Kahn actually played that part briefly when he was auditioning for a high school performing
arts program, a candy cigarette clenched between his teeth as he attempted to convey acidic disdain.) Hatcher suggests that the stereotypes don’t come out of nowhere: “If you’re going to write about critics,” Hatcher says, “the first thing you think of is probably the worst thing a critic ever said about you.”
Kahn can talk at length about the hazards and frustrations governing the theater-critic relationship these days, an ever-fraught dynamic that now features fewer critical voices across the spectrum as journalism contracts, and writing that Kahn laments is often shorter and shallower. But have these months working on two prickly satires about critics shifted his views in any way? Not especially.
“It’s made me remember all my stories,” Kahn says.
Like this one: New York Times critic Frank Rich saw Kahn’s 1989 “Twelfth Night” at the Folger and loved it — a startling turnabout after a decade of vicious notices that included a full-fledged teardown of Kahn’s 1983 Broadway “Showboat.” Kahn allows that on occasion Rich made a constructive comment that stayed with him . . . but you always remember the bad ones.
“It was hard for me to take his ‘Showboat’ review when he said, ‘Despite Michael Kahn’s direction, the teary-eyed audience rises to their feet,’ ” Kahn says, summarizing a long notice rather accurately. “I thought, ‘All right — I had something f---ing to do with that.’ ”
The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound, directed by Michael Kahn. Through Feb. 14 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Tickets $20-$118, subject to change. Call 202-547-1122.