Ask a theater reviewer, and you'll find there are few questions he or she hates getting asked in the lobby more than that one. You'd think we'd enjoy it given that what we do is to write about the show. I think there are a couple reasons we hate that question--or since I shouldn't speak for all my colleagues, reasons why I hate that question:
Politeness. It may seem like some of us relish in making people feel awful, but really, we are quite human. Most of us do still believe in the social contract and the need to abide by it. We're also aware that our words are sometimes given more weight than those of the casual audience member--or at least that they are more likely to be picked apart.
Alan Alda wrote in one of his memoirs that the only proper thing to say to a performer immediately after a show is, "You were wonderful." You could extend that to anyone involved in the show (director, producer, crew member, etc.): "The show was wonderful."
As critics, we're supposed to be held to a certain standard of honesty, else there is no point in doing what we do. So to have to give the polite response sets up an immediate trap.
Time. Perhaps an even bigger reason for me has to do with how I watch shows. When I first started reviewing, I would immediately start critiquing the show, trying to figure out what I was going to say and trying to interpret things immediately as I watched it. Too often, though, that meant that I was working my way through a thought or a metaphor while there were still things going on on stage.
I had to learn to sit back and experience the show, fully aware and fully focused, without trying to think about it until it was over. While I am in the theater, my goal is to be open to what the actors, playwright(s), director, and technicians are trying to show me. I try to develop an attitude of receptiveness.
It is only after the show is over that I start to think about. I analyze what made me sit forward in my chair or at what points my attention wandered. I think about the story arc and whether the choices made on stage contributed to the story or detracted from it. I consider how the skills of the performers succeeded or were lacking.
However, if you catch me in the lobby, I haven't had time to do that thinking yet. I could tell you what I feel about the show, but not what I think. I need the time after the show--and sometimes with the person that I saw the show with so that we can both talk about what our responses were--to think, evaluate, and ponder.
To give an opinion in the lobby right after a show is over is to short-change the show by committing too early. It is unfair to those who put all the work into creating the production to make a summary judgment two minutes after seeing it.
It's one of the reasons I like going out after a show--because I do enjoy the discussions that engage specifics in the show without the pressure of having to give it a thumbs up/thumbs down or a number of stars.
So please, if you see me in the lobby and do ask that dreaded question, forgive me if I change the subject and don't jump to the conclusion it was because I didn't like the show.