Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Miller Time

There seems to be a fairly negative critical consensus on Arthur Miller's newest play, "Finishing the Picture," which recently opened at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, but the critics don't seem quite comfortable coming out and saying it in forthright fashion. Aside from Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, who calls the play "horrible," the critics work hard to be respectful to Miller. Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times sums up why:

"At 89, and with a golden legacy of plays behind him, Miller has the right to do pretty much anything he pleases and have it staged in splendor. "

And the draw of a new Miller play about Marilyn Monroe, with a cast that includes Matthew Modine (who gets hammered for being "wooden" in the reviews), Linda Lavin (becoming a genuine stage luminary) and Stacy Keach, has enough public appeal to have prompted a week's extension of its Goodman run. Chris Jones in Variety thinks the play's "voyeuristic, gossipy appeal" even gives it a chance for a Broadway transfer, although he carefully suggests that the play isn't ready artistically.

Although they have praise for director Robert Falls, the critics uniformly consider the play slow, using words like "static" and "draggy."

The play is clearly based on the troubled filming of the Miller-written "The Misfits," and Jones synopsizes the plot this way:

"This is a play about what happens when an important woman will not get out of bed. Pure and simple. All pass the [first] act asking the question 'Why won't she get up' time after time, except when they can be found asking the other question of the night: 'What can we do to make her get up?'

In the second act, we see [the Monroe character] Kitty naked in bed, maybe getting up, maybe not. "

For Jones, the ultimate success of this play rests on whether such a non-plot rises to the level of allegory. He and the other critics are dubious about that.

Kitty barely speaks, and the critics all seem to note that Miller's treatment of his former wife Monroe is typical rather than enlightening in any way. Ben Brantley, who, after Teachout, writes the most consistently negative notice in The New York Times, comments:

"This latest offering from America's most eminent living playwright for the most part floats passively in the usual mists of mythologies.... [T]heatergoers interested in gimlet-eyed looks at either Mr. Miller's relationship with Monroe or the making of a legendary flop would do better to consult film biographies. This play's window on the past is not clouded by prurience, but it does not provide much in the way of illumination either."

And Brantley wittily suggests that the Elton John/Bernie Taupin "Candle in the Wind" is superior to the plethora of clunky metaphors Miller puts in the mouths of his mouthpieces, who include satirical takes on Lee and Paula Strasberg, purveyors of the Method style of acting. Many of the critics refer to Miller's dialogue as "awkward" and rife with overblown metaphor -- more than one review specifically mentions the comparisons of Monroe to the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains as notable clunkers.

I did manage to catch Miller's last play, "Resurrection Blues," in its Minneapolis premiere a couple of years ago. It was an unsuccessful, if fitfully intriguing, mix of satire and earnestness, and based on reading these reviews, "Finishing the Picture" seems to suffer from the same competing impulses. Miller was never known for his humor, and a lot of the jokes in "Resurrection Blues" were barbs at easy targets. What surprised me about that play, and what seems somewhere buried in this work as well, was a gnawing doubt from the author, a sense that despite his willingness to dole out moral judgment, he wasn't quite as confident about what was right and wrong anymore.

With "Finishing the Picture," critics disagree on whether they prefer the earnest, contemplative, emotional Miller, digging for some elusive profundity (which seems to elude him here), or the Miller who lashes out.

Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune prefers the latter. Saying that the work is really three plays in one, "coexisting uneasily within the same frame," he counts the first two as the making (or unmaking) of "The Misfits"and the theme-heavy allegory on "the mystique of stardom."

"Then there's the third play, the one that works.... It's about the Strasbergs, here disguised as the Fassingers. Decked out in beautifully absurd flame-red cowboy boots..., [Stephen] Lang mixes it up to memorable results with Linda Lavin's Flora Fassinger, Kitty's coach and handler. Shrewdly written with equal parts admiration and contempt, ripely and wittily acted, these two take the stage clean away from Miller's other characters, who are given to unhealthy portions of what Flora calls 'caviar philosophy.'"

Weiss agrees:

"It is the blackly comic parade of self-satisfied and self-deluding characters of the play's first half that gives 'Finishing the Picture' whatever life it has."

On the other hand, Elysa Gardner in USA Today says the Strasberg characters "appear too cartoonish to have inspired anyone; they seem to have wandered in from a bad sitcom."

Jones appreciates the "anti-Method parody," but prefers the other Miller.

"[T]he real core of this play, ironically, lies in its most underwritten and underdirected sections: namely, the moments when the writer-husband [played by Modine] cannot save his wife because he cannot love her the way she needs. "

The critics want to like the play, and find nuggets to praise, but they all express a fundamental dissatisfaction.