No Vital Signs of Life Six Feet Under The Fall

Arthur Miller’s 1964 After

the Fall is one of those troubled plays that has been rarely staged and

widely discussed. An artistic failure when it launched the unfulfilled dream of

a Lincoln Center Repertory Company in 1964, the play became notorious for Mr.

Miller’s characterization of his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe in the central role of

the suicidal Maggie.

Monroe had just died of an overdose when After the Fall premiered-making the surrounding gossip even worse.

The play itself-with Jason Robards in the demanding role of its narrator,

Quentin-was swamped by the Monroe controversy, and the playwright was accused

of abusing her memory.

“Coming so soon after Marilyn’s death, After the Fall had to fail,” Mr. Miller wrote defensively in Timebends . But when it was revived 20

years later with Frank Langella-by which time the Monroe connection had

cooled-the outcome was still unhappy. The

Times ‘ Frank Rich wrote that in spite of all the fine staging and acting in

the 1984 revival, we “still go home feeling more exhausted than enlightened.”

His parting shot damned the play: “It’s hard to imagine a better-or, for that

matter, another-production of After the

Fall for some time to come.”

The time has come! Michael

Mayer’s current revival for the Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre on

Broadway, is my first viewing of the famously failed play, and I wish I could

report the discovery of a lost, misunderstood masterpiece. The new production

isn’t helped, I regret to say, by the fatal miscasting of TV star Peter Krause

(of Six Feet Under ) in the leading

role. But can anyone figure out why the director and his designer, Richard

Hoover, have chosen to stage the play in an airport lounge?

Mr. Miller’s first words in the script are: “The action takes

place in the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin.” And here we are instead in

“Idlewild Airport, New York City, 1962″ (the Playbill informs us), or a virtual stage replica of Eero Saarinen’s

T.W.A. building. Why an airport? As Groucho once put it, “Vy a duck?”

The playwright’s stated intention is absolutely central to the

play. He wants to reproduce the interior life of a man in crisis as certain

visions and memories swirl in a near-surreal nightmare. An airport lounge

doesn’t do it: It’s static, literal and earthbound.

But Mr. Krause is simply unable to convey the torment of his

character (let alone any interior life). He’s playing a cipher, a dull empty

vessel. Mr. Krause looks dorkily youthful in his pinstripe suit. (Quentin is

about 40 and on the edge of a nervous breakdown). There’s no neurotic vitality

in Mr. Krause, no outrage or pain or necessary self-disgust. Even

Maggie/Marilyn can’t bring him to life. Yet Quentin should be a conscience-stricken

killer of sorts. After the Fall is

fundamentally about his wives and women; it’s about wracked denial and the

impossibility of innocence. But without stature-presence-there’s no fall.

It’s harsh, but Peter Krause’s name on the marquee is meant to

sell theater tickets, I guess. Yet what does it really confirm? From Kelsey

Grammer’s Macbeth to Ashley Judd’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Mr. Krause’s After the Fall , the chasm between TV

acting and the stage is as wide as a canyon.

Mr. Miller has dressed up a melodrama as Greek tragedy just the

same. The private (his own autobiography or an adaptation of it) sinks under

the weight of the play’s mighty public themes (the Holocaust, the Great Crash,

the McCarthy witchhunt, even the myth and destruction of an American Goddess).

It’s astonishing that Mr. Miller has always denied that Maggie is based on

Monroe. He’s in denial about a play that’s about denial!

You can put Maggie in a red wig. (Carla Gugino, in an appealing

performance channeling Marilyn, is a redhead here.) You can have her played by

a talented black actress (as Michael Blakemore did in his production at the

National Theatre in England). You can do what you want. But Mr. Miller’s Maggie

is an unmistakable portrait of Monroe, and it turns us all into voyeurs.

Almost all of Act II is about the disintegration of Quentin’s

marriage to Maggie. He’s a liberal Jewish lawyer with a guilty conscience;

she’s a singer and iconic sex symbol who slides from a true naïveté to

self-hatred and suicide. Mr. Miller was after an archetypal tragedy of

innocence, but Monroe’s public myth is too much baggage (and too familiar a

tale). He actually wrote about her more vividly in Timebends , where she brushed her hair back as if with a gun and

death hovered over the woman he loved and wanted to save.

But Quentin is too much the

sanctimonious fallen saint here, with his confessional, hangdog guilt and

overheated monologues. “She had the truth that day, I bought the lie that she

had to be ‘saved’! From what? Except my own contempt!”

There’s an uncharacteristic,

convoluted fuzziness from the playwright whose best plays have elevated theater

to a clear-eyed moral debate and public forum. Here’s the self-searching

Quentin again: “Aren’t there mothers who keep dissatisfaction hidden to the

grave, and do not split the faith of sons until they go in guilt for what they

did not do? And I’ll go further-here’s the final bafflement for me-is it

altogether good to be not guilty for what another does?”

Huh?

But then, the wordy drama is overcrowded and sketchy-as if Mr.

Miller was in search of his touch again after a near 10-year hiatus. (His

previous plays were produced in 1955, A

Memory of Two Mondays and A View from

the Bridge ). Having dealt definitively with McCarthyism in The Crucible , the issue of naming names

in After the Fall has now become

token (a couple of pro forma scenes, a convenient suicide and a brief,

disguised sketch of Elia Kazan, the collaborator). Even Mr. Miller’s family

portrait in the play of father and sons-an enduring legacy of his early great

dramas-falters badly here to the point of a near-farcical scene between Quentin

and his hospitalized old dad.

“Mother died,” Mr. Krause’s lackluster Quentin tells him with all

the distress of someone saying, “Have a nice a day.” “She had a heart attack

last night on her way home.”

“Oh, no, no, no, no,” inconsolable Dad cries.

Mr. Mayer-who directed a fine A

View from the Bridge for the Roundabout a few seasons ago-takes no

prisoners. He’s anxious to simplify After

the Fall , whatever its flaws. The men reveal no subtext; the women are all

one-dimensional nags, Oedipal smotherers and slags-except for Holga (played by

the refined Vivienne Benesch), where there’s no choice.

Holga is Mr. Miller’s all-too-saintly German savior and anti-Nazi

guide to the concentration camps. “Why does something in me bow its head like

an accomplice in this place!” Quentin exclaims melodramatically during a visit

to one of the camps with Holga. An accomplice ?

For heaven’s sake, he’s unhappily married! The hell with it, life’s not so bad.

He’s having an affair with Marilyn Monroe! He’ll probably have an affair with

Holga, too. He might even marry her

one day ….

Disguised autobiography or no, it isn’t a crime for Arthur Miller

to have written a play that doesn’t work. For him to bloat After the Fall with biblical allusions is a bridge too far. For the

director to add Freud is another story. But when a playwright of Mr. Miller’s

stature confuses the angst caused by a muddled sex life with the death camps,

it’s time to call it a night, yes?