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Editor’s Choice: John Lahr’s ‘Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows’

Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows by John Lahr, Norton, 569 pages ($29.95). Of all those reviewing the 2006 revival of “Pajama Game” in that year’s New York Theater season, John Lahr was the only critic who could begin his review (in the New Yorker) with this: “I went to see ‘The Pajama Game’ in 1954 at the invitation of my godfather, Eddie Foy Jr., who played Hines ... In the area of sexual relations Uncle Eddie’s legend preceded him: when his wife threatened to leave him he reportedly nailed all her clothes to the floor. He certainly nailed the part.”

Lahr, famously, is the son of Bert Lahr, one of the greatest comic performers in the history of film, theater and vaudeville (his gleeful “ong-ong-ong” both preceded and followed his most famous turn of the cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz”). It is, not-so-famously a crucial part of Lahr’s DNA as a writer, where he is an exuberant and compellingly readable explorer of both high and low, as well as most points in between (his father legendarily played in a production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” with Kurt Kasznar and E.G. Marshall).

Since the death of Kenneth Tynan, Lahr has been the living master of the New Yorker profile, in which Tynan performed so immortally, whether the subject was high, low or wherever. This prodigiously readable and brilliant Lahr collection marks the end of his stint as senior drama critic of the New Yorker, where his tenure in the gig was the longest in the magazine’s history. He is still writing there (most recently a profile of Julianne Moore). Fittingly, this book begins with the author’s opening confession that his occupational “Joy Ride” actually included losing “consciousness” and collapsing “between seats” when he was “blindsided by one of Dame Edna Everage’s illiberal salvos.”

He bemoans the decline of theater criticism, now that “the media’s obsession with lifestyles and celebrity has hijacked the discussion of the dramatic craft and process.” This joyful book is Lahr’s “rearguard action” from among “the happiest years of my writing life” and is about Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Tony Kushner, David Mamet, Sarah Ruhl, Clifford Odets, David Rabe, Harold Pinter, Wallace Shawn, Neil Labute, Sam Shepard, etc. – Jeff Simon