The major reviews are in for retired New York Times’ Hollywood and Washington reporter Bernie Weinraub’s first play The Accomplices, a New Group presentation about how U.S. leaders ignored the Holocaust and stymied the immigration of European Jews fleeing Hitler in the 1940s. (It officially opened Monday at NYC’s Acorn Theater and continues through May 5.) All but one of these critiques are positive, and most are near raves. But, curiously, the odd man out is The New York Times, which utterly pans the play. (Full Disclosure: Weinraub is one of my closest friends.) The NYT critique was assigned to a freelancer and not a NYT staffer in order to avoid favoritism. But did the opposite occur? Was Weinraub’s play judged more harshly? And why didn’t the review note that the play damns The New York Times‘ own Holocaust coverage? Not surprisingly, Weinraub is furious. “The reviews keep coming in, virtually all of them good to excellent. Sure, some of them point out flaws in the play. And frankly I agree with their observations. But this New York Times review is so out of left field. It’s unprofessional and unworthy of The New York Times,” he tells me. “It would be one thing if everybody disliked the play, or even the majority of the critics disliked the play. But the only bad review came from only this freelancer who seems to have his own agenda as he wrote what can only be called a diatribe.”
My calls to discuss this with NYT theater editor Rick Lyman went unreturned. To be fair, I’ve heard over the years a number of complaints from past and present NYT staffers that books they’d written were reviewed too harshly by the paper that employed them. And it’s rare indeed for a NYTer to write a play much less have it produced Off Broadway, so this may be an even more extreme example of that trend. But the fact remains that, so far, major theater-reviewing venues like the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Sun, Newsday, Variety, Time Out New York, CurtainUp.com, and TheaterMania.com, the national web site, all applauded Weinraub’s playwriting debut. Excerpts included: “A solid piece… unwavering intelligence… wonderfully varied, profoundly disturbing, and ultimately heartbreaking… provocative themes… impressive first play… tells a complicated, dramatic story that weaves in wry humor and a dash of romance and, wisely, avoids sermonizing…” But the NYT review by contrast seemed unnecessarily snide and inappropriately adolescent. Here’s how it began: “It seems rude, even sacrilegious, to fault a Holocaust drama for failing to entertain. Most of us don’t associate genocide with a fun night at the theater after all. But neither should we be expected to endure a mind-numbing history lessons… The Accomplices is a soporofic lecture of a play. If humorlessness were the measure of good art, it could rank among the best productions of the year.” My own thought is to question whether, because of the similar Nazi subject matter, the reviewer expected to see The Producers, made a wrong turn, and instead wound up at The Accomplices. After all, most dramas are no barrel of laughs. That was recognized by TheaterMania.com reviewer David Finkle, who started his critique by saying: “As Bernard Weinraub’s heavy-tonnage docudrama The Accomplices unfolds, the effect is like that of an entire population — you among them — feeling a slow, steadily mounting burn. While the sensation is uncomfortable enough to have you shifting in your seat, it is absolutely necessary.”
I am not suggesting any sort of conspiracy theory. (Even though I happen to know that Weinraub and Lyman, who took over the Hollywood correspondent beat from Bernie, never got along and didn’t like each other.) I am also not maligning the choice of Village Voice theater reviewer David Ng for the assignment nor impugning his integrity as a reviewer. (But this does appear to have been not just his first theater review for The Paper Of Record but his first piece on anything for the NYT since I could not find his byline there either in Nexis or the NYT‘s own online archives.) What I am doing is simply drawing attention to what I consider to be a gross unfairness.