Playwright Arthur Miller has earned gobs of respect, a Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman, and our eternal shock and awe for having married Marilyn Monroe. Last October in Chicago brought the debut of his latest work, Finishing the Picture, about the horrendous behind-the-scenes filming of his screenplay The Misfits. At 90 years old, Miller is the dean of American theatrical letters. But that doesn't mean he has our love.
Miller buffets his audiences with guilt, betrayal and denial and suffocates them under history and time. Yet look past his ponderous philosophizing, whining and lecturing about all those great themes bound in leather, and you always discover solid-gold nuggets about people in crisis. Resolutions don't come easily in Miller -- they're usually tragic if not downright cosmic -- but it's his work's simple moments that speak directly to us, moving us like no other playwright's. And so it is with After the Fall, Miller's most shamelessly autobiographical drama.
Written during the playwright's separation from Monroe and premiered two years after her sad death, Fall's release caused a scandal before it even opened. Miller was villainized for revealing the intimacies of his marriage on the stage. Tasteless and unforgivable!, his critics carped, he's defaming the dead! Forty years later, in its reverential, resonant incarnation at the Alley Theatre, Miller's most personal drama now can be viewed for what it is. Although Act II of Fall is consumed by Monroe -- in this version called Maggie and turned into a megastar pop singer -- she's hardly the focus of the play. Nor is she treated any less shabbily than the other women in Miller's fictional kaleidoscope evaluation of his life. For all his obsessions with women, Miller is surprisingly sexless.
After the Fall
The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421
Through February 6, $40-$54.
Not for nothing did Miller originally title this psychologically probing play Inside His Head. The main character is Quentin, a superstar lawyer, and we travel right into his mind as he examines the mess of his life. Quentin addresses an unseen presence beyond the footlights -- maybe God, a judge or an analyst -- as impressions and scenes from the past appear and disappear as fleetingly as thoughts. Back and forth in time we go as childhood traumas, former wives, imaginary indiscretions, communist witch-hunts and holocaust horrors tumble out of him.
Big questions tumble out, too -- weighty ones about innocence lost, survival, truth and self-worth; i.e., all those capital-letter verities that end up being rather nebulous and general. If you begin a play with a speech about how you're no better than the Nazis, where can you really go? For all the magisterial poetry -- and there's much beauty to be heard in Miller -- at a certain point, you want Quentin to get on with his life. Stop with the whining, already. You're a pompous shit and you treat people, especially women, like shit. Now that you know this, don't do it anymore.
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Abetted by director Gregory Boyd's horror-movie sound effects, Quentin's stony pronouncements stop the play in its tracks. The drama trips over all the grand themes that Miller slathers on, but this phantasmagoric one-man show has a cinematic fluidity that's as unique as a nightmare. After the Fall really does match form to structure in an amazing way. With its idiosyncratic style, Fall is a beautifully crafted play, and its novel, free-association construction is very much underappreciated.
Each scene in Fall contains specific, chilling, resounding moments. They're so rich and creamy, they could be little playlets. During the family scenes, Quentin's doting, prodding mother (the first woman in his life to betray him, played by Melissa Hart) turns from cozy to hellish after a phone call wherein his father loses his fortune during the Depression. The excitable, lovely Felice (Robin Terry) pops in and out of Quentin's mind to bless him for giving her the offhand advice that convinced her to get a nose job. Sad sack Lou (John Tyson) and opportunist Mickey (Jeffrey Bean), two old liberal friends from Quentin's communist party days from the '30s, have a battle of wills over naming names. Quentin's first wife, Louise (Josie de Guzman), nags about how tired she is of being his "praise machine." Holga (Elizabeth Heflin), Quentin's lifeline to the future, gives him a simple "hello" at play's close that promises at least some sort of hope and salvation. And there are wonderful moments with Maggie (in an indelible performance by Kate Shindle), whose life force is set on overdrive. She's the ultimate control freak in a stupendously talented, ravishing package.
As Quentin, James Black delivers a tour-de-force performance -- and he knows it. He hits all his high points, but seems much too grounded, earthy and "actory" for the cerebral, paralyzed intellectual he's playing. His best moments, too, are during the quiet times, like when he sits on a park bench caught in mercurial Maggie's tantalizing, deadly aura.
"Attention must be paid," demands Willy Loman's belittled wife in Death of a Salesman about her tragically flawed, but human, husband. The same could be said about Miller's exasperating, exhilarating After the Fall.