A dinner sandwiched between two plays

When I headed to downtown Chicago to meet Chris Jones, one of American Theatre Magazine’s 12 most influential theatre critics, I couldn’t get out of my head the image of Meryl Streep’s character in Devil Wears Prada movie – a whimsical larger-than-life magazine editor whose unapproving lip-biting made a designer revise his entire collection. This time Hollywood almost got it right.

If a few hundred thousand Chicagoans, including the city mayor and the Illinois governor, care about your reviews, the chances are you are influential, sharp-witted, and read a lot. But don’t be quick to presume the position comes with a glossy office and an assistant who indulges all of your caprices. You work hard, run between assignments and have a knack how to fit family and friends into your absent free time.

Jones, Chicago Tribune’s voice on theatre, 5-foot-5-inch tall with worn face and warm smile, speaks amiably, yet the heft of his word can bring a rising star to prominence, or deprive well-established directors from their audience. In 2009, he slammed the pre-Broadway run in Chicago of “The Addams Family” and four months later New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater staged a revamped version of the musical to reflect his criticism.

Chris Jones Photo: Jeffrey Marini/Chicago Reader

I met Jones to profile him for a course assignment. I had the least of expectations he would respond to my interview request, let alone invite me to see a play with him, introduce me to his wife and give me a ride home. But as he did, I grew interested to unravel how he juggles his free time and career so well.

An influential critic, Jones, 49, also strives to be an inspirational father of two boys and a husband of Gillian Darlow, the CEO of Polk Bros Foundation which has distributed more than $300 million to Chicago nonprofits since 1988. For the most part, Jones has triumphed, except that he had to ask his wife what the dream jobs of the kids are, and got the age of his younger son off by a year.

Jones sees a show almost every night; some days he goes to two plays; and often he squeezes a family dinner between a matinee and an evening show. If friends want to meet him, he invites them to a show. If he wants more time with either of his two boys, he takes one of them to a performance (but never both at the same time so that he does not look as if he’s at an outing). “As a critic, people tend to watch you,” he says.

One will have a hard time predicting Jones’ review just by watching him, though. Sitting in the dimmed venue with crossed legs, folded arms, a head tilted to the right and a pen in the mouth, the critic laughed at few jokes and did not clap. He occasionally moved his lips as if he spoke. But he made no sound. And he was unaware of the habit, he said.

Sitting toward the end of the fourth row in Goodman Theatre, Jones wore jeans, a shirt, a leather jacket and formal shoes. For 10 minutes before the start of the Sunday afternoon performance of the Arab-Spring-themed play “The Happiest Song Plays Last” in Goodman Theatre,” he made several 90-second phone conversations, responded to emails, checked his Twitter and answered my questions. He had just landed from New York and traveled to the Loop on a public bus; less than 24 hours earlier Jones had boarded the plane to New York. On the short business trip he had seen two shows on Broadway – a matinee and the Pippin musical – and caught up with old friends to gossip about theater.

After the end of “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” the Ohio State University theatre PhD graduate, headed to his tiny Tribune Tower cubicle, which is buried under more than 200 books shoved on just one six-foot shelf above his desk. He then rushed home for a dinner with his family in Evanston and later returned back downtown to the Lookingglass Theatre to watch “Still Alice.” By the next morning, Chris had four unwritten reviews and no notes, except for a few dozen unintelligible scribbles on the back of theatre leaflets.

The time pressure didn’t bother him. He knows exactly what he is going to write, says Doug George, his editor at the Chicago Tribune. George recalls how on a tight deadline in 2009 Jones, dripping with sweat, composed all in one breath a 340-word review of a political debate by punching on the miniscule keys of a Blackberry. “It was spelled right, it was coherent, and it was the right length even,” George says. “It was a very humbling thing to witness.”

Jones’ two children know little about the hectic side of a critic’s life. But they often discuss with their dad the same questions that worry an adult person’s mind – death and absurdity of life. Last year Jones took his older son Peter, to see “The Book Thief,” a play based on a novel that follows a German girl whose family hides a Jewish man during the Holocaust. The father-son couple returned home talking about fear and responsibility, Jones’ wife Darlow recalls.

Jones takes pride that his young sons talk about topics uncommon for the playground. Jones has inspired his kids by staging theater outings as special nights – his two boys dress up and occasionally meet important people like the Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. The kids have grown up invested in theatre. Evan, 8, wants to be either a critic or a roller-coaster engineer; and Peter, 9, “definitely” wants to be a writer or a biologist, Jones says with help from his wife who drove both us north in her red Mazda 3 along Lake Shore Drive towards Evanston where Jones was to have a brief family dinner.

And while the boys always give shows the maximum of four stars, Jones does not set on his heart to be likable. “I might be a nice guy to you at this moment and then I turn around and review your show terribly,” he says.

Jones’ ultimate goal is to pin down a great show and motivate people to see it. Good aesthetics are not enough to satisfy him. Stimulating narrative is the key. On his cultural Friday and Sunday columns in Chicago Tribune, Jones discusses issues ranging from the death penalty to school violence. And he expects to see a play to thrive in the context of current events.

In a city like Chicago with 200 different plays staged every day, Jones admits he has become a little oversaturated. Yet, he stays on the lookout for a great show deserving the ultimate compliment a critic can give: “I could not love anybody who did not love the show,” says Jones quoting his compatriot, the British critic Kenneth Tynan.

Twenty minutes after I had hand shook with Jones, his phone rang and an few instants later he hurried down the steps of Tribune Tower onto Michigan Avenue. He chased the next appointment on his calendar.