The first time I (didn’t) read a scathing review
Peet loath to let performance be influenced again
When I was 26, I made the mistake of reading a review of a play I was in. Whale Music is a little- known gem by Anthony Minghella and I still had three weeks left in the run. We were an all- female cast and everyone got a nice review in The New York Times, except me.
Anita Gates wrote I was “trying” to play my character — the bohemian sidekick — “as a sort of British lowerclass Joan Rivers.” I love Joan Rivers, but this was an intimate English drama about 20- year- olds on the Isle of Wight. And what exactly did she mean I was “trying” to be like Rivers? Apparently, not only was my interpretation wrong, but I also wasn’t even doing it right.
Over the next three weeks, I tried my hardest to be the opposite of Joan Rivers. By the end of the run, nobody could hear me.
A critic’s opinion had infiltrated my performance and as much as I resented her for making me so ashamed, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Every night, I was performing against her review, trying to prove her wrong instead of doing my job.
I vowed never again to read another review.
In the years after Whale Music, I worked s t eadily, but I still didn’t feel like a legitimate actress. After all, I’d starred on a network show for teens, then jumped straight into a Bruce Willis comedy where I ran around topless wielding a gun. What I wanted more than anything was to be one of the anointed actors in the New York theatre scene unanimously thought of as stage worthy — as having chops.
In 2006, Scott Elliott asked me to play Corie in his revival of the Neil Simon comedy Barefoot in the Park. I felt like my day had come. Someone was asking me to be on Broadway, in a lead role, in a play some would argue belongs in the American canon. I went skipping down the street to my mother’s apartment to share the news.
“I’m going to be on Broadway!” I screamed.
The morning after we opened, nobody called me. When I talked to my mom, she sounded like a cheerful acquaintance who isn’t sure if she’s allowed to know about your terminal cancer diagnosis. My agent said he was coming down with something and had to get off the phone. As I made my way to the theatre, every newsstand I passed was a test of my resolve. I felt like a reformed gambler who had been airdropped onto the Vegas Strip.
When I got to the theatre, I made my usual stop at Jill Clayburgh’s dressing room. She confirmed Ben Brantley’s review in The Times was a doozy and let it slip he had taken a swipe at Patrick Wilson, who was playing my husband Paul. I plunged into a defence of my co- star and just as I was about to boil over with rage, Jill took my hand.
“What he said about you is much worse.”
She didn’t say it to hurt me, but rather to spare me from walking around like an ignoramus.
The way I camped out in my apartment those first couple of weeks, you’d have thought I was Martha Stewart in the middle of her insider-trading scandal. When I did venture out, I skulked around Manhattan, avoiding making eye contact. Not only did I assume everybody read the review, I also assumed everybody cared.
As the days went by, I almost got used to the mortification. It was like having a drastic, abominable haircut; all you can do is act normal and pretend it didn’t happen. But I couldn’t stop ruminating about what Brantley might have said:
“This is the worst performance I’ve seen in decades. Perhaps ever. Why they gave the part of Corie to this pear- shaped, insipid hack defies reason. What’s next? Carmen Electra in Medea?”
Some of my friends suggested I just read it already. After all, how could the real review be worse than the one in my head?
Then I got a handwritten letter from my mom’s college roommate.
“Dear Amanda,” she said. “I saw your play, and I, for one, thought you were terrific. Some critics are just cruel.”
I slogged through the rest of the run.
I wish I could say I handled it with courage. I didn’t. Patrick came to my dressing room about a week after the review to say, essentially, keep your head in the game. Stick with me.
To this day, the fact my co-star sensed I was pooping out on my job fills me with shame. There i s nothing worse than being a quitter. Especially when you’re not a solo player, which, you realize when you get older, you never really are.
But believe it or not, I look back on some of that experience fondly.
I came close to reading the review about seven million times. But now I’m attached to my vow not to do it, which has taken on a life of its own. Like being a vegetarian, every now and then you remember the reason — the original driving force — but over time it becomes part of who you are and requires almost no effort to stay the course.
In case you’re curious, The Times kindly archives the review online forever and ever.
Please don’t tell me what it says.