Racism, Misogyny and Old White Men Oh My! I’d Like to Put Jack Back in The Box: A “Jack in the Box” book review

Jack in the Box or, How to Goddamn Direct
By Jack O’Brien
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hard cover/e-book
$28.00/$14.00
272 pages
ISBN 9780374603830

Review by Alyssa O

The Interwebs — Three-time Tony Award winning director Jack O’Brien has a lot to say about theater. And why shouldn’t he? Throughout the course of his decades-spanning career he’s worked with all the greats; Mike Nichols, Neil Simon, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the list keeps going.

He’s collected all of these tales in his latest book, Jack in the Box, or How to Goddamned Direct.

The book is, in its best moments, part no-holds-barred manifesto on trusting your instincts, and part memoir of the good old days of theater, rife with juicy behind the scenes show-biz anecdotes about people you’ve definitely heard of. What working director wouldn’t want a peek inside that box?

Jack in the Box really shines as a charming, rip roaringly funny read that affirms the unexpected joys of working in the theatre. The brilliance of this book is that it’s not a how-to manual. It delivers nothing in terms of rules or actionable instructions an eager neophyte director can take back to the rehearsal room.

What it does do is celebrate the fact that whether you’re throwing together your first rehearsal in a local church basement or at the Old Globe Theater, nobody really knows what the heck they’re doing. Theater is an experiment, there is no road map, and that is a beautiful thing.

Plenty of big names have already sung the book’s praises. Ethan Hawke calls Jack in the Box, “magic… illuminating, insightful, and essential.”

Nathan Lane says it’s, “the most candid, eloquent, hilarious and moving explanation I’ve ever read on the subject [of directing].”

But, I’m guessing that if you’re reading New England Theater Geek, you’re looking for a different take. Gosh darn it, I’m here to give it to you.

Unfortunately, Jack in the Box takes a hard-left turn into old-white-man land that I cannot endorse or recommend to any contemporary director working to build a more inclusive world.

Whether it’s hints on how to deal with difficult cast members (spoiler alert: in his career he can only think of two moments of “stop-the-music adversity, both involving actresses”) or how to approach “edgy” humor involving racial stereotypes (I’m not even going to do a pull-quote from his anecdote about his old pal Jerry Lewis going for it with Jew jokes. In a world where antisemitism is dangerously on the rise again, I don’t know what editor thought it would be cute to keep that one in.)

Jack in the Box is woefully out of step with the values of most modern theatre creators. I can’t even recommend it as a fun if slightly out of touch read about the Golden Days of Theater.

I am, however, comforted by the fact that men like O’Brian are dinosaurs. He and his ilk will soon retire to their nursing home for obsolete fogies and leave us to take over a Zeitgeist with rulebooks they haven’t written. We inherit a global theatre community where there’s space for a variety of perspectives and where racism and misogyny aren’t excused as simply being “from a different time.”

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