Recently, as I spoke to a group of understandably rapt college students on "The Theatre" ("r-e" not "e-r"; that's very important), one besotted youth asked what I "look for" when I'm reviewing a play.
There are some critics who notice only the performers -- Frank Rich, the New York Times' "Butcher of Broadway," was famous for this -- or the direction, production values or even how big the audience is. (In Pittsburgh's not-too-distant past there was a daily newspaper whose critic had to either count heads or report the official attendance figure in the review.)
Maybe it's my own background, but while I do notice such things, the first thing I see is the script. And, if the show's a well-regarded one, I ask whether the company has given its own attention to the playwright.
In most cases -- partly because I've reviewed more than 3,500 plays -- I can usually see "the play" even through a bad production, with bad direction and/or performances.
So when another student asked me whether it's hard to sit through a lousy production of a good script, my answer was no. Unless the production actively blocks the play, I can still enjoy the writing.
I don't have a more-favorite play than Tennessee Williams' incomparable The Glass Menagerie. I've seen my share of both good and bad productions, and luckily only a very few ever obscured Williams' genius.
The Duquesne University Red Masquers production, I'm happy to say, doesn't destroy the aching poetry of this Williams classic about the Wingfield family. It's an all-student company, and there is something to be said for watching a group of people just discovering Williams' beauty. Director Gail Hofbauer comes up with a few surprisingly inventive and textually supported moments.
This isn't a definitive production (we're missing both Laura Wingfield's limp and Amanda Wingfield's Southern accent), but John Lane's set is simple and evocative.
My litmus test for any production is whether I cry during Tom's final monologue. I have to say that I didn't here. (Although, if I think about that 3,500 number one more time, I may start misting up.)
The Glass Menagerie continues through Nov. 15. Peter Mills Theater, Rockwell Hall, Duquesne University campus, Uptown. 412-396-4997