Within the first five minutes of Working Gurl, a gender-flipped parody of the 1988 Melanie Griffith movie, one of the tall drag queens deadpans to the audience: "You've never seen anything until it's been slaughtered by drunken trannies." The director, Tricia Beigh, craned her neck in my direction, presumably to check whether I was laughing. It was going to be a long night.
I was sitting in the audience on a kind of dare: I told Bad Actor Productions—with whom I have a not-entirely-amicable relationship—that I'd review their new show if they would seat me in the back row, on the aisle, so I could leave whenever I wanted. If I stayed through the whole thing, I promised to buy the 10-person cast and crew the night's first round of drinks. But now the director was sitting just a few feet away and checking up on me, introducing a level of social obligation that upset the delicate balance we'd struck.
Bad Actor Productions has been tottering around in high heels and garish makeup since 2003, rewriting well-known movies and TV shows for maximum lewdness and drag-is-inherently-funny-ness. (Which is nothing new. Ian Bell and his Brown Derby Series have been kicking ass in that genre, with wittier satire and more delightfully vicious humor, since 1999.)
Because life is short and I don't love drag for its own sake (it's a means, not an end), I kept clear of BAP until 2007, when, in a fit of conscience, I went to see one of their productions—and started cursing my conscience five minutes into the show. I dimly recall drag queens, a day spa in "Oceanattle," wooden delivery, and jokes about lattes and labia. I left at intermission, which kicked up static both on The Stranger's webpage and the blog belonging to Craig Trolli, one of the brains behind BAP, who complained that I was "lazy" and "too cool for stool [sic?] [sick?]."
Obviously, BAP and I weren't meant for each other. But over the years, Stranger commenters kept dredging up the philosophical question: Is it acceptable for a critic to leave an execrable show before it's over?
A few weeks ago, BAP asked for a review of Working Gurl and I wanted to think about the politics of leaving. So I sat in the back row, on the aisle, and endured. (Sample joke: A businessman asks Working Gurl if she can arrange a meeting with him on Tuesday. "Yes," she coos, "I have a big, gaping opening on Tuesday." Haw! Another sample joke, in which Working Gurl's super-high friend agrees to do her hair. "I'll do the drapes," the friend says while waving toward her crotch, "but I should stay away from the carpet." "It's okay," Working Gurl responds. "I've got hardwood." Hardy har! 'Cause she's a DUDE! Hardy HAR!)
I really wanted to split.
Most people seem allergic to the idea of the theater critic bailing before the show's over: It's a critic's job to watch the play, no matter how bad, and he should see every last minute of it before rendering judgment. But why? Is the food critic who sits down to a plate of black, slimy lettuce required to eat the whole thing before she can authoritatively judge that salad unfit to eat? Of course not. Don't be ridiculous.
Some will object to the food-critic analogy on the grounds that it's remote. But only the theater critic and food critic have their consumption of the "product" publicly scrutinized. The book critic can privately skim a bad novel on his couch, the art critic can choose to look at an object for one minute or one hour, the rock critic can pop in and out of a show. The film critic with her stack of DVDs has the divine gift of fast-forward. (Screw invisibility and flight. As a theater critic, I want the superpower of fast-forward.) But the food critic will either finish her plate or not; the theater critic will either sit through the whole thing or bolt. And everybody who cares to know will find out.
Some will object to the food-critic analogy by arguing that rotten theater isn't as poisonous to the mind as rotten food is to the body. But those people are wrong. Bad theater is bad for you. Expert witness: Epictetus, writing sometime around A.D. 100:
Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people's weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don't choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest. It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there's no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.
It's safe to assume that by "vulgarity," Epictetus meant something more complicated than dick jokes. (The word has been used throughout history to describe common vegetables and no-fault illiteracy. Plus, Chaucer and Shakespeare loved a dick joke—"vulgar" didn't become synonymous with bodily functions until some priggish English people hijacked the word in the 19th century.) The old philosopher probably meant something closer to "uninspiring."
Critics work, for the most part, to guide their readers toward the inspiring and away from the uninspiring. They are not engineers of sewage-treatment plants, who must wade through acres of shit to point out every little fissure in the pipes. They are not teachers, who must slog through interminable term papers to diagnose every little problem with sentence construction. And they are certainly not cheerleaders, who must keep praising the team even when it's a total disaster. Critics are discerners—bloodhounds, not oxen; epicureans, not stoics.
As for Working Gurl: Eh. Its plot (secretary climbs corporate ladder using her wits and genitals) is the same as the film, but dirtier. One character was rechristened "Mr. Analgash." There were references to The Silence of the Lambs and the unpleasantness of shitting kimchi.
I stayed for the whole thing, but mostly because I wanted to be a good sport. I didn't mind buying the first round.
But next time, I'm out of there.