The Self-Winding Critic

Joe Adcock bucked the norm.

Actors watch theater critics like soothsayers watch entrails. But frustratingly enough, Joe Adcock generally looked happy at every show, laughing at comedies and watching dramas with a focused intensity. Afterwards, actors would congregate, muttering "He seemed to be having a good time," before adding an ominous "but you never know what he's going to say about anything."Adcock, the white-haired, bearded, and unfailingly convivial theater critic for the P-I for the past 26 years, retired last week. And whatever else you can say about him, he was prolific, attending three or four shows a week, sometimes more, week in, week out. "It's like a self-winding clock," he says, when I ask about his stamina. "There's always that moment when the lights go down, and you're in the dark, and it's exciting because you don't know what's coming next."Adcock's reviews received their share of complaints from theater artists, some of which were deserved. His leads were often bewildering (metaphors that spun crazily like tops; gobbets of theater history), and I've sometimes been baffled by his critical judgments. You could usually tell whether or not he liked a show, you just couldn't tell why exactly.Instead of deeply analytical criticism, Adcock offered theater reporting: what he saw and where he saw it. "I remember when I was a second-stringer in Philadelphia," says Adcock, "and the first-stringer said, 'Tell 'em what it's about, tell 'em how you liked it, get the address right.'"I've never had that dramaturgical urge," he adds. "Misha [Berson, the Seattle Times' critic] will say how something might have been done, how it was weak and how it could have been strengthened. I always just tried to see a show for what it is."Joe had another quality that's rare in theater critics: kindness. I don't mean that he always gave good reviews—far from it. (I've received my share of lashings from him over the years as a playwright and director.) But he never took offense or went out of his way to give it. He didn't have a hidden agenda—political or aesthetic. He liked what he liked and didn't like what he didn't like, regardless of who you were or your reputation.And he was incorruptible. He didn't curry favor with artists, administrators, or celebrities. Unlike every other critic I've ever known, he didn't pick favorites and his critical dislikes are few. (He hates The Sound of Music—"You wish the Nazis would shoot them in the second scene so we could all go home"—and loathes Gilbert and Sullivan.) He was as likely to sincerely praise a first playwrighting effort in a 49-seat theater as he was the latest Pulitzer Prize–winner at the Rep—and just as likely to admit he didn't care for either of them.Adcock's devotion began with theater trips as a child in Pennsylvania. "My parents were both from small towns and weren't wealthy people by any means, but those little towns were served by the Keith Circuit [an East Coast vaudeville tour]. Plays would come through all the time. We were Methodists, Sunday-school people—so something like Shaw, that was gritty. As a family, those experiences were good, something to talk about in the car afterwards."Adcock began writing reviews in college, following this up with the graduate program at the Columbia School of Journalism. After that he worked for The Philadelphia Bulletin until it folded in 1982, when he was contacted almost immediately by the P-I, which didn't then have a full-time theater critic. "They figured nobody goes to the theater and they'd let it lapse for a while," Adcock recalls. Pressure from the public, particularly movers and shakers like Bagley Wright, led them to reinstate it.Adcock says that might happen again, if someone powerful "could get through to someone that matters [at the P-I] and tell them 'This will not do.'" For now, though, the paper won't be filling his position and is using freelancers instead. "Though I've nothing against freelancers, I'm sad because it's such a neat job and I wish someone would have it. I'm out, but nobody's going to get this plum."At the end of our interview, I pitch Adcock a softball—call it professional courtesy. I ask if he had a parting wish for Seattle theater on his way out the door. "My wish would be that on January 1st next year, every adult in Seattle would make a resolution to see one play a month," he laughs. "Because I don't think they know what they're missing."Then there's a long pause. Adcock looks down at his hands, and when he looks up, to my surprise, his eyes are red and his voice quavers a bit. "There's something really poignant to me about so many artists trying so hard and getting so little for it," he says. "When you see people in the theater lobby and you think, 'I saw them on stage! And they were good!' But good and a career are very different." He pauses again. "My wish would be that they could all have jobs doing what they do well. That's the most troubling thing for me, people throwing themselves like moths at something that is pretty unforgiving, even damaging." He looks down again, then up at me with a sad smile. "I know it doesn't make much sense for me to say I wish they'd all have jobs. But I do."

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