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By Jake Tracer


John Lahr strolled into the Vivian Beaumont Theater on a frigid February afternoon with a full mind and an empty stomach. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but here he was—the chief theater critic and arts profiler of the New Yorker—ready to sit through and review the final play in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy. Well, almost ready.

While waiting in the lobby before the performance, he spotted André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater and the man responsible for bringing Stoppard’s plays from London to New York. Bishop is also one of the many people in show business that Lahr counts as a friend, so the critic approached him and began a conversation. Lahr hadn’t seen The Coast of Utopia since its original production in London and he wanted to know what he was in for. Bishop suggested he get something to eat—two and a half hours of Russian history do not go down well when you’re famished.

So Lahr bought a bag of peanuts and, picking at them as he handed his ticket to the usher, was stopped by a complete stranger. “I’ve read all your books,” the man said. If true, that’s quite an accomplishment. Lahr has written fifteen books and a handful of plays, the result of what Tina Brown, who hired him when she took over as editor of the New Yorker in 1992, called a life “marinated in theater.” Lahr smiled at the man and, instead of thanking him, decided to offer a different kind of nourishment than the intellectual fare the stranger had consumed. “Well, have a peanut,” he replied and continued on his way.

Another stranger approached him as he settled into his seat, this time a woman. She quickly told Lahr how much she enjoyed his recent article on Cate Blanchett. She got a smile but, after she left, Lahr expressed his surprise that the piece was well received. He thought it had been cut too much and didn’t perfectly “incorporate the work into the story of a life in such a way that the work reflects on the life and the life reflects on the work.” That’s the distinction between a John Lahr profile and a puff piece, he told me. And what did he expect from the opening-night audience of a Tom Stoppard play at Lincoln Center? “It’s my constituency,” he acknowledged. “But get me fifty feet from a theater…” He trailed off. Lahr is far more anonymous on a Manhattan sidewalk.

Still, Lahr’s byline is widely known and I wanted to profile this famous profiler. He spends only two weeks a month here (the rest of the time he’s at home with his wife in London), so when he is in town, he’s almost always working. He doesn’t even have an apartment in New York; for the last fourteen years, he has rented the maid’s room of a West Side apartment on Eighty-third Street owned by Margo Lion, one of the Broadway producers of Hairspray and another of Lahr’s theater-world friends. “He’s an incredibly hard and industrious worker,” Lion told me. “He’s down in the office before I’m barely stirring.”

Lahr’s office on the twentieth floor of the Condé Nast building in Times Square is the central hub of his profile work at the New Yorker, which occupies more of his time and attention than his nights in theaters and the ensuing reviews. It’s a small, square space filled with notebooks and binders containing his research and interviews, which he always tapes. When I visited him there, the Blanchett files were in a box on the floor. Despite spending only two days with her—about half what he normally spends with his subjects—there were two two-inch binders containing typed interview transcripts and a ledger with his handwritten notes from research materials. He doesn’t read everything about his subjects, but rather singles out the best sources, such as Playboy interviews, transcripts from NPR, or recordings of Inside the Actors Studio. (“Not so great, but you never know.”) Whenever he finds something interesting, he copies it down.

“It’s like compost,” he said, while flipping through his notes on Blanchett. “You just throw it in there, you don’t think about it, and you just let it grow. You start to build threads of meaning. Unconsciously, a certain order is being made as you follow the flow of something.”

On this particular day, when talking about this particular actress, “flow” is an important word. In an Actors Studio appearance, Blanchett said “fluidity” was her favorite word, and Lahr turned the concept into one of the themes of his article. He wrote that Blanchett “has a kind of inconclusiveness that lets her remain receptive” in both her personality and her acting work, as he tried to figure out how the two interact and what each brings to the other. When interviewing, he doesn’t confront his subjects so much as collaborate with them, using their contacts to get to the usually unreachable sources around them. “Even Sean Penn gave me his mother’s number, and she saw me. Twice,” Lahr said.

As is the case with most New Yorker reporters, Lahr typically receives more access to his subjects than they’ve ever allowed before. Just as he wants to write about them, they want to be written about in his magazine. “I couldn’t believe it really, that he was interested in me,” the Indian film director Mira Nair said about her first reaction when she learned that Lahr wanted to write about her. The article, which appeared in the New Yorker in 2002, begins with a description of the small town in Uganda where Nair and her husband own a home that no other reporter has ever seen. “We never, ever invite anyone to Uganda, but John came for two days,” Nair told me. “He fit into our simple life there. He fits in, and that’s saying something for a famous American writer.”

“John sort of sees himself as a detective,” Deborah Treisman, his editor at the New Yorker, told me. “He’s trying to find the story of a person. He’s not just saying, ‘Here’s what Helen Mirren did and here’s where she went.’ He’s always more interested in what drove the person to do what they did.”

In other words, Lahr looks at his subjects in the same way English professors study Shakespearean sonnets. Just as there’s a difference between the fictional speaker of the sonnets and the real man writing them, Lahr sees a divide between stars’ public images and their real selves. “When you become a public personality and have a public persona, you have created ‘you,’” Lahr said. “The public ‘you’ is your greatest invention. Noel Coward is a great example. Barbra Streisand. Woody Allen. My dad.”

Lahr’s dad, of course, was the great Bert Lahr, the comic actor most famous for playing the Cowardly Lion on film in The Wizard of Oz. The difference between Bert’s public persona and private life was dramatic: on stage he was always the funniest man in the room, but at home he rarely cracked a smile. When John, now 65, was a child, Bert would never watch himself on television with his family. Instead, as John wrote in a 1998 New Yorker personal essay, Bert would always sit at his desk, “which was positioned strategically at a right angle to the TV.” Much like the Cowardly Lion, Bert could put up a facade in front of others but cowered when forced to face himself. So John and his sister Jane learned “to treat Dad as a metaphor,” as he wrote in 1998, or as he explains now, “to love the illusion, the mask.”

John himself is a combination of his father’s two sides. Physically, he looks like a more refined version of Bert, with the same wide and round nose but without the clownish range of expression. Professionally, he likes to write somberly about comedians—when reviewing the Broadway production of The Producers, he wrote that “we are polluted by grief and greed; let’s acknowledge it, defy it, meet the inevitable vulgar annihilation with careless vulgar rapture, and, with the last measure of our energy and imagination, refuse darkness its dominion. That’s the comic’s bargain with the public.” In the divide between his stage and home lives, that’s just what Bert did.

John often speaks in metaphors, making connections between disparate or opposing ideas. In the two days I spent with him, he referred to various parts of his job as “panning for gold,” “building up a tapestry,” “the difference between an assembly print and a final film,” “saddling up and riding out,” and, fittingly, “doing a play.” He would know: in addition to his writing at the New Yorker, Lahr is the only theater critic in the magazine’s history to win a Drama Desk Award. The 2002 trophy for Outstanding Book of a Musical sits proudly on his office desk under a poster for Elaine Stritch at Liberty, the show he wrote.

Lahr sees nothing wrong with his being part of the theater world he covers. In fact, he thinks he’s a better critic and profiler because of it. The journalistic code of avoiding conflicts of interest “absolutely damns critics to ignorance because they have no way of understanding the thing they’re reporting, really being in it,” he told me. “It leads to the deadly kind of ignorance that you have in Ben Brantley [of the New York Times] and all of them. The really important critics in our culture and England have all worked in the theater and been allowed to cross over.”

Back at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lahr got up from his seat at intermission and went to the lobby to make a phone call. When he got there he had yet another chance encounter, this time with playwright Tom Stoppard himself. Even though Lahr was there to review the play, Stoppard is another of those theater people with whom he is friendly, so he stopped to chat. Besides, Stoppard already knew that Lahr thought there were problems with The Coast of Utopia, and Lahr had already paid Stoppard a bigger compliment anyway. Taped to the computer monitor in Lahr’s office and visible whenever he writes there, is a small piece of paper with a quote from Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love: “Only to shine some light, it doesn’t matter on what, it’s the light itself, against the darkness, it’s what’s left of God’s purpose when you take God away.”

“I think that’s what one can hope for,” Lahr said. “That legitimizes the activity. All you’re doing is making connections, bringing a little light. [The poet A.E.] Housman was talking in that play about his obsession with classical fragments of poetry, and he was saying it doesn’t matter what, it’s just the production of thought that stimulates the culture, that sheds light.”

Illustration by Hyeondo Park

 
 

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