Review: HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC at Steppenwolf

Review: HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC at Steppenwolf

“This music is magical. My writing is stilted.” So proclaims Erik Jensen as famed rock critic Lester Bangs in HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC, now playing as part of Steppenwolf’s Lookout Series. This thought has likely crossed the mind of all art critics out there (certainly it has crossed mine), and it embodies the spirit of this 80-minute solo play as it charts Bangs’s career. Jensen and co-playwright Jessica Blank (the pair are also married) give us a portrait of Bangs—who died of a drug overdose at age 33—that demonstrates the passion, creativity, and self-destructive nature that defined him. This solo play provides an overview of Bangs’s trajectory and allows audiences to learn about the rock music he loved, aided by David Robbins’s sound design.

The play succeeds largely because of Jensen’s affable and animated performance. With his greasy hair, prominent mustache, ripped jeans, and ratty “Detroit Sucks” t-shirt, Jensen certainly cuts the image of a messed-up man who doesn’t care how he presents himself to the outside world. In Richard Hoover’s set design, he’s also surrounded by piles and piles of clutter and a never-ending supply of beer cans. To Jensen’s credit, he manages to make Bangs both sympathetic and also repulsive as he chugs beer after beer and guzzles cough syrup like water.

Jensen’s winsomeness sustains the performance and our interest in the piece. He begins the show by quite literally inviting the audience into the space, passing out music magazines and cans of beer to help pass the time while he works through a bout of writer’s block. It’s a charming gimmick and makes Jensen immediately likable. Even as we watch Jensen’s Bangs self-destruct, we still want him to succeed—though his tragic end doesn’t seem far from sight.

Rock music fans, artists, and writers will find much to appreciate in HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC. As relayed in Jensen and Blank’s script, Bangs’s writing process is laid bare for audiences to observe—the actor’s characterization underscores the humanity embedded within his work.

HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC plays the 1700 Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and is now extended through July 29. All evening shows are followed with performances from Chicago area musicians who play some of Bangs’s favorite songs and artists (Bethany Thomas did a magnificent at my performance). Tickets are $30. Visit for more information and to buy tickets.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

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