Miller's Tales

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Miller's Tales
I'm James Taylor with Theatre Talk

Two years ago, the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood mounted an intimate revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall. Prior to this, the play had not been staged in Los Angeles for 24 years for many reasons. First, it's a long and demanding work; and second, many consider the drama--which is a barely fictionalized account of the playwright's failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe--to be Miller's worst play. Robert Brustein famously attacked the original production by calling it a &quotthree; and a half hour breech of taste."

And yet somehow, The Fountain Theatre production made the play seem fresh, insightful, and certainly worthy of an audience's attention. It ran for seven months and many who saw it believed that with a few cuts--it was still three and a half hours long--the play could return to Broadway.

Two years later, After the Fall did return to Broadway--but sadly without the Los Angeles cast that made it so engaging. Instead, the Broadway version featured two television actors in the roles of Arthur and Marilyn, I mean Quentin and Maggie. Carla Gugino was good as the mega-diva movie star--but she lacked the tragic qualities that local actress Tracy Middendorf brought to the role, which gave a sense of altitude to the character's fall. On the other hand, Six Feet Under star Peter Krause looked good in his 60's-style suits, but he was completely wooden as Miller's alter ego.

Amazingly, the Broadway version of After the Fall was an hour shorter than the one here--the three acts were condensed to two and much of the non-Marilyn material was edited--and yet it felt so much longer. Despite an opulent set and name actors, this revival had none of the energy of the smaller local production. In fact, the Broadway After the Fall called to mind many of the original criticisms of the play: primarily that Miller was using the stage to justify his actions during the last years of Monroe's life.

After the Fall appeared just two years after Monroe's death and it showed just how profoundly affected Miller was by his ex-wife's death. Apparently he still is. 30 years later, Miller has written yet another &quotfictionalized;" play about Marilyn--this time centering around Monroe's breakdown on the set of her final film.

The world premiere of Finishing the Picture took place last week at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Robert Falls, the man who directed the searing Death of a Salesman that conquered Broadway a few seasons past, once again put together a solid staging that showcases Miller's writing in the best way: straightforward and for the most part, without gimmicks.

Actors such as Stacy Keach, Frances Fisher, Linda Lavin, and Scott Glenn lend their names and experience to the cause, and the result is a production that rarely strikes a false note. But while the strong cast ensures that the performance rarely feels false; sadly, Miller's words rarely provide anything that's moving or dramatic.

The play is basically &quotWaiting; for Marilyn," but with Beckett's existential language replaced with Hollywood shoptalk and clever one-liners. There is some philosophizing by Matthew Modine, who plays the Miller surrogate, as well as a metaphorical subplot about wildfires--which seems to represent the helplessness of man when confronted with forces of nature.

But just as the wildfire is only alluded to, the force of nature that is a depressed, drugged-up movie star is also barely seen. In After the Fall, Miller at least represented Monroe with a walking and talking character. With Finishing the Picture, the Marilyn part has almost no lines--she moans and writhes about, often in the nude--but she's never really a presence on stage. No doubt, this is the point, to show that a star's power is entirely intangible and based on perception; but ultimately, it feels like a cheat.

Perhaps what's happened is that in the 32 years of wrestling with his ex-wife's death, Arthur Miller has finally decided that Marilyn Monroe's tragic spiral of self-loathing is simply too complex to put into words.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.