Bitter Experience


I’m afraid now there is no other answer. That plague source, television, must be abolished. Otherwise I see no hope of making the Roundabout change its casting policy. Despite the good things that have occasionally happened at this questionable institution—most often in its smaller Off-Broadway venues—it never learns. Its nonprofit status and the public funds it receives somehow can’t dissuade it from prostituting itself to the money machine, with no more than a threadbare commitment to the art it’s supposed to be serving. Its few artistic successes don’t come anywhere near justifying the inexplicable degree of forbearance it receives, year upon year, mishap after mishap, from critics and audiences alike. Its current production of After the Fall is a kind of last straw—a patchy, misguided rendering of a deeply flawed play, with, in the difficult central role, a stroke of casting so nakedly cynical and artistically irresponsible that it constitutes a gesture of contempt toward theater, audience, and play alike.

And since abolishing television is, I concede, unfeasible—no matter how much its absence would improve our lives—some other solution must be found. Should foundations and public funding sources be urged to terminate their relations with this brain-dead, cash-cow-milking institution? Should artists be urged to eschew all participation in its future disasters? And yet only three months ago I was praising the Roundabout for its lovely production of Intimate Apparel. I can’t explain it. Maybe some personality-altering drug is administered in the Roundabout office whenever its staff crosses the contractual border between Broadway and Off-Broadway?

The worst of the situation is that blame inevitably falls on someone who must have meant only to do good. Peter Krause is undoubtedly a nice, earnest young man who wants to achieve something in the theater and happens to be a TV star. How he came to the Roundabout and how they came to cast him as Quentin in After the Fall, I don’t know. He doesn’t seem, onstage, like the kind of self-important ass who might prance around the set of his TV series mouthing off his aspirations to stage greatness. In fact, he doesn’t seem like anybody onstage—that’s the trouble. What we see is a large, handsome, smooth-faced, colorless youngster, speaking, without a trace of conviction, lines that don’t appear to come from anywhere in his mind or body. It’s like watching a side of beef try to act.

This is particularly painful in After the Fall because its subject is experience. As the title implies, the hero is a man whose decades of emotional battering, in his career and multiple marriages, have taught him that neither he nor anyone else is innocent. Despite a thin layer of altered circumstances, this hero distinctly resembles Arthur Miller; it’s virtually impossible not to recognize in the portrait of his second wife, the flamboyant and heartbreaking figure of Marilyn Monroe. When the play premiered in 1964, Monroe was not long dead; the production caused controversy over her depiction and on a variety of other grounds as well. Straggly and verbose, looking at world-shaking events through the prism of personal history, it’s a notoriously ungainly piece. The Roundabout’s text, considerably cut down, seems even less coherently shaped than the original. Written when Miller was nearly 50, it’s a dramatized midlife crisis, loopily seesawing from recollected scenes to narrated reflections and back. Some of the scenes are taut, pungent, first-rate Miller; others, reused in earlier and later Miller plays, here have a wax-museum stiffness.

Taking place in Quentin’s mind as he waits at an airport for the woman who will become his third wife, the action is meant to flow freely. Michael Mayer’s production takes the airport metaphor far too literally: Richard Hoover’s set is a cramped, clumsy knockoff of Saarinen’s TWA terminal, on which every move seems awkward; Mayer clutters it further with random comings and goings, never arriving at any overall style. Carla Gugino, the Maggie, is a stage novice but clearly a skilled one, catching the role’s alternation of harshness and giddy vulnerability. Two proven talents, Jessica Hecht and Vivienne Benesch, convey the more stable reality of the first and third wives very effectively.

But all effort, good, bad, or uneven, goes for nothing because the play is Quentin’s play, and the absence of a Quentin reduces it to idiocy. The work was attacked in 1964 for being so self-justifying, making Miller out to be a hero who patiently put up with everyone else’s histrionics. Krause’s placid emptiness, coupled with the various evasions in which Miller allows Quentin to be caught, turn the hero into an antihero—a classic passive-aggressive shitheel, betraying everyone and never showing the slightest twinge of remorse. Since Quentin’s remorse is the substance and point of the work—so memorably conveyed in 1964 by Jason Robards, with his weary basset-hound eyes and helpless, crooked smile—to remove it reduces the drama to a running indictment of Arthur Miller. Somehow, that shouldn’t be why a nonprofit institution produces an eminent playwright’s work. Yet if the Roundabout has any other motive beyond selling tickets to TV viewers, it’s not visible onstage.