Arthur Miller's 1964 play "After the Fall" was always a mess.
Michael Mayer's highly stylized production starring a painfully miscast Peter Krause only makes it messier.
"After the Fail" grew out of a play Miller had been working on in the late '50s, which he set aside to write "The Misfits" screenplay for his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe.
He resumed working on it when producer Robert Whitehead told him he wanted a new Miller play to open the theater company at the still-unfinished Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center, of which he was the head.
A charitable way of regarding the badly structured, unfocused "After the Fall" is that Miller didn't have enough time to put all the themes in perspective.
Worse, he tackles so many subjects - his stressful relationships with women, especially Marilyn, the McCarthy years, the Holocaust -one fears he was trying to write something important for the new company the New York theater community imagined was going to usher in a golden age.
In 1964, when Marilyn had been dead a year and a half, people were disturbed because Miller's fictionalization of her was so unflinching and pitiless. That remains true 40 years later, perhaps because at least the Marilyn scenes, ugly as they are, ring true. So do the scenes that concern "naming names."
But his effort to link his "hero" Quentin's marital problems with Cold War politics and the Nazis is not persuasive.
Neither is Quentin's all-too-glib profession of guilt for practically all of the above. (This sort of "no-fault confession" was in the air back then - the standard line was, "We all killed Kennedy.")
It is hard to imagine this play working under any circumstances. But Mayer has made most of the characters into caricatures -especially the women, who, at one point, all confront Quentin at once, a fun-house mirror image of "Nine." In that show, at least Guido loves all the women.
The only one Quentin tolerates is Holga, a not very subtle version of Miller's third wife, lnge. As played by Vivienne Benesch, with an unconvincing German accent, she is not as sympathetic as she might be.
Carla Gugino conveys the unbearable neurotic energy of Maggie, the Marilyn character, powerfully, but in the early, flirtatious scenes, she seems forced. We never sense the innocence that might have made Maggie appealing. Here we sense danger from the get-go (and wonder why Quentin doesn't).
As Quentin's first wife, Jessica Hecht is a tiresome nag. Candy Buckley makes his mother suitably histrionic.
The most moving scene is that between Mark Nelson and Jonathan Walker as two men summoned before "the committee." Nelson, in fact, might have made a good Quentin, because he would be more believable as a shy man diffident toward women.
A man with Krause's matinee-idol looks is not likely to have had this set of hang-ups (see above: Guido). He does project an engaging earnestness, but it is not enough to make a compelling character.
Richard Hoover's sleek airline terminal is effective, and Michael Krass' costumes are all spot-on. The play itself, however, has not grown more cogent or likable with time.
All art - except perhaps ceramics - is autobiographical, but some is more autobiographical than others.
Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" is almost shockingly personal in the recycling of its raw material. It didn't work originally in Elia Kazan's highly personalized, 1964 rendition and, though it seems less self-serving over time, it doesn't really work now - not even with Peter Krause (coming up from TV's "Six Feet Under") as its suave if over-externalized hero, and Carla Gugino as Maggie, that almost deliquescently sexy Monroe figure in this Miller time.
Of course, when the play was new, the events it alluded to, even loosely covered - such as the playwright's failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe and her subsequent death, or the activities of the McCarthy hearings - were fresh in its audience's minds.
Forty years later, that white-hot fission of fact and fiction is missing, and the Roundabout Theater Company's new production, which opened last night, can take on the manner of a potential classic at best or an historical document at worst.
A classic it isn't.
Miller tells his story, as he writes in an author's note, as if it "takes place in the mind, thought and memory" of its hero, Quentin, the playwright's alter ego.
It is close to what the Elizabethan theater might have envisaged as a soliloquy, and closer yet to what psychiatrists would call an "abreaction" - vignettes suggesting an acting out of the subject's past.
So, like a landscape with figures, Miller has visualized his play as a narration with figures, and, with everything happening inside his hero's head, placed it in an abstract setting.
For this production, Michael Mayer - who directed the Roundabout's triumphant staging of Miller's "A View from the Bridge" a few seasons back - has treated the text very cleverly.
He's avoided the pure abstraction of the setting by placing the action in Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in what, in Richard Hoover's stylishly streamlined design looks eerily like Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal.
Miller/Quentin's stream of consciousness, at least at first, appears well-suited to the impersonal comings and goings of an airport (although you start to wonder what an airline terminal has to do with the actual play) and Mayer has made a few useful shuffles of scene.
Even so, the action - which jumps from the Great Depression to the misadventures of fame - lacks continuity and even dramatic force or tension.
Miller's apparent agenda of guilt and redemption, especially redemption, is soggy with the arrogance of crocodile tears. Yet he is one of the great playwrights of our time, and his characters do emerge from the mists.
Unfortunately, Krause fails to dominate. The play always seems to be happening around him rather than within him. He suggests little more than a passing stranger in this never-never land of culpability.
As a result, the secondary roles swirling around him often have more color and dimension, notably Gugino as the sweetly naive and boozy sexpot Maggie; Vivienne Benesch as Holga, earth-motherly as the Viennese woman who at last understands Quentin, and Jonathan Walker as the cocky Mickey, the McCarthy informer that Miller cheekily based on his original director, Kazan.
It appears Miller's latest play, "Finishing the Picture," is to revisit some of the material from this now 40-year-old retreat from paradise. Perhaps this time his camera will find a clearer - and more honest - focus.
Perhaps there is something anesthetizing in the discovery that no one in the world is innocent. Portraying a man in thrall to this harsh revelation in the grievously misconceived revival of Arthur Miller's ''After the Fall,'' which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, Peter Krause certainly appears to be feeling no pain.
Or joy. Or any of the stronger emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, that crop up in between.
Which goes to prove that the camera can indeed probe a soul in ways the naked eye cannot. Mr. Krause is famous for playing Nate, the elder son in a family of undertakers, on the HBO series ''Six Feet Under,'' a part in which all sorts of prickly neurouses and conflicts seem to simmer beneath his conventionally handsome features. Yet as the rueful Quentin, a woman-bedeviled lawyer who bears the darnedest resemblance to a playwright named Arthur Miller, Mr. Krause leads the audience through his character's life like a dutiful but bored student guide in a museum.
This is not a winning attitude to bring to Mr. Miller's 1964 drama of moral disillusionment, a play that is essentially one man's cosmic yelp. And the director Michael Mayer (who did well by Mr. Miller's ''View From the Bridge,'' also for the Roundabout Theater Company) has done nothing to raise the evening's emotional temperature, unless you count feelings of irritation. Staged as if it were a breezy period comedy about the war between the sexes -- with a chic airline terminal set (designed by Richard Hoover) that evokes the recent con caper movie ''Catch Me if You Can'' -- the production itself suffers from the depth-denying bad faith that the play makes a point of condemning. Now it's true that ''After the Fall'' has provoked more prurient attention than any of its author's other plays because of its perceived autobiographical elements.
These include a depiction of friendships under siege during the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era that inevitably bring to mind real-life name-namers like Elia Kazan (who -- and the mind reels -- directed the original ''After the Fall''). There is also, more notoriously, a portrait of one of Quentin's wives who was widely thought to be a stand-in for one of Mr. Miller's, Marilyn Monroe.
But the drama is the most cerebral of Mr. Miller's major works. It was created to function, he has said, in the way a mind does in its search for meaning. Of course, this is no cold scientific lab of a mind. Drifting on winds of agony between past and present, Quentin's articulated thoughts make ''After the Fall'' one of the most guilt-choked plays ever written.
As this monologue-prone philosopher considers his relationships with wives, friends, family and history itself, he comes to see that man is truly vile. He even winds up arguing that the same impulses that might lead someone to contemplate betrayal of a spouse or a colleague differ only in degree from the mindset that permitted the building of Nazi concentration camps. After a visit to one such structure, Quentin is moved to ask, ''Why do I feel an understanding with this slaughterhouse?'' He is not, in other words, what you would call a fun sort of person.
If Quentin's equally self-recriminating and self-excusing diatribes are to be other than annoying, you had better be able to experience his questing agony right along with him. Earlier Quentins, including Jason Robards (who created the part) and Frank Langella, are said to have deployed every phrase-electrifying, soul-illuminating weapon in their dramatic arsenals.
In contrast, Mr. Krause delivers Quentin's ontological rants with, at best, the perplexed concentration of someone who is not mechanically inclined reading a car repair manual. He pretty much sums himself up when he meets a vivacious young woman at a bus stop and reflects, ''I felt strangely abstract beside her.''
That young woman, by the way, turns out to be Maggie (Carla Gugino), an overcharged sexual magnet in the play who changes careers from switchboard operator to pop singer, quickly becoming an American love goddess of infinite emotional neediness. Mr. Miller has always denied that Maggie is a literal portrait of Monroe. (By the way, his new play, ''Finishing the Picture,'' to be staged by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago this fall, is about the making of a movie that sounds an awful lot like ''The Misfits,'' which he wrote specifally for its star, one Marilyn Monroe.)
It remains impossible for anyone who knows the barest details of Monroe's life to watch or read ''After the Fall'' without thinking of her. And while Ms. Gugino (of ''Karen Sisco'' on television) appears here as a curvaceous redhead instead of a curvaceous platinum blonde, Mr. Mayer doesn't avoid forcing comparisons between Maggie and Marilyn. On the contrary, a scene that shows Maggie rehearsing for a television revue brazenly evokes Monroe's ''Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend'' number (from ''Gentlemen Prefer Blondes''), right down to the chorus of bespectacled male admirers.
Ms. Gugino is a likable, lively presence, probably too lively for the play's purposes. This Maggie is such a spark plug that when she begins her slide into suicidal despair, you keep expecting her to pop right back up into fighting form, like a glamour-puss Rasputin. When she lashes out at Quentin as their marriage falls apart, she's less a vulnerable cornered kitten than a claw-wielding alley cat.
Such a portrayal fits into this production's presentation of Quentin as a passive victim of angry women, who range from the smothering mother of his childhood (stridently played by Candy Buckley as an aging Jazz Baby) to Louise (Jessica Hecht), the harpy of a wife he leaves for Maggie. A more idealized version of womanhood is embodied by Holga (Vivienne Benesch), an archaeologist who has survived the Nazi era and, gathering flowers from a field near a concentration camp museum, teaches Quentin to hope again.
Aside from Ms. Benesch, who suggests an especially thoughtful Miss Rheingold, the female cast members at least have the advantage of their energy. (The men forgettably include Mark Nelson and Jonathan Walker.) But only the ever-inventive Ms. Hecht, whose intensely embittered Louise nurses her resentment like a beloved infant, comes close to creating a viable character.
Though no one, to my knowledge, has ever classifed ''After the Fall'' as a comedy, the audience at the performance I saw laughed throughout, admittedly a tad uneasily. There were even startled titters when Quentin announced his mother's death to his ailing old father (Dan Ziskie), who was in a hospital recovering from surgery.
''Listen, Dad,'' said Quentin. ''Mother died.'' You might think that the unexpected laughs that followed had something to do with Mr. Krause's role as an undertaker on television. But it was really more about the unfeeling abruptness with which Mr. Krause fired off the lines.
Adam and Eve may have wept upon leaving Eden, at least according to Milton. Facing a similar exile in Mr. Miller's tale of innocence lost, Mr. Krause's Quentin seems to find only numbness.
Not since Antonio Banderas brooded through last year's revival of Nine has an actor on a Broadway stage been surrounded by as many sultry, smothering women as Peter Krause is in Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of After the Fall (* * * out of four).
Unlike Banderas, Krause, best known as Nate on HBO's Six Feet Under, does not play a celebrated artist in his Broadway debut. But Krause's character, a lawyer named Quentin, is inspired by a celebrated artist: playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Fall not long after the dissolution of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is clearly represented by Maggie, a gorgeous and pathologically insecure singer, played by another telegenic Broadway newcomer, Carla Gugino of ABC's short-lived but critically praised Karen Sisco.
In this revival, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, Maggie must compete for Quentin's attention, and ours, with a posse of women who pop up at the most inconvenient times. To make matters worse, these rivals are all brought to life by extremely accomplished and attractive actresses.
Luckily, this leading lady is a force worthy of the star who inspired her. Gugino channels the qualities and contradictions that have fascinated Monroe fans in the four decades since her death: the guilelessly beguiling sensuality, the rueful dizziness and, above all, the breathless, desperate need to be loved. It's an exquisite, star-making performance.
Krause is less astonishing as Quentin, whose tormentors include an ex-wife and a glamorous, dead mother, respectively played by the wry Jessica Hecht and the suitably overstated Candy Buckley. At a youthful-looking 38, he doesn't project the full weight of experience and inner conflict that the role requires.
Michael Mayer's staging, which uses an airport terminal as the backdrop for Quentin's journey, also can have a chilly, distancing effect. Still, the director culls supple, witty turns from his cast, which also includes Vivienne Benesch as Quentin's post-Maggie love interest and Jonathan Walker as a morally adaptable attorney obviously based on director Elia Kazan.
In the end, though, it's Gugino's canny, captivating work that truly makes this Fall worth catching.
Arthur Miller had a legitimate beef, back in 1964, when "After the Fall" was first presented by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in a production starring Jason Robards as Quentin, a man afraid to commit to marriage because of his guilt over the suicide of a previous wife, Maggie. Miller complained that people were so fixated on Maggie's resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, to whom the playwright had been married, that they disregarded the deeper, more relevant themes of his play and failed to evaluate it on its own merits. Fair enough. But after 40 years, the MM issue no longer looms so large over this transparently autobiographical work. And if "After the Fall" no longer seems like a man's attempt to absolve himself for his callous treatment of a former wife, it now seems like an attempt to rationalize a broader range of questionable behavior.
Even with the play's proper perspective restored, auds still get an eyeful of the voluptuous Maggie, a sweet-natured but dim-witted singer-superstar who worships Quentin because he once did her a kindness when she worked as a receptionist in his law office. ("I would do anything for you, Quentin -- you're like a god!")
Carlo Gugino doesn't take the self-destructive Maggie anywhere near the edge of the ledge where she's hanging by the end of the play, hopelessly addicted to pills and liquor, a pathetic monster who keeps crying out for help in ways that are guaranteed to shoo potential rescuers away.
Gugino also doesn't seem to have a whole lot of heart for Maggie's mad scenes, her insane demands when she's feeling professionally insecure, the nasty way she turns on people when she's high on pills and liquor, the jealous rages she flies into when she can't break through Quentin's emotional aloofness.
But Gugino is a generous actress who gives Maggie what she craves -- tenderness and understanding. There is dignity in her portrayal of Maggie's innocent infatuations and kittenish sexuality, her childlike yearning to be protected and her terrible eagerness to please. If the actress doesn't take Maggie to the depths, maybe it's because she likes her too much to degrade her. It's not the worst acting lapse.
Maggie's vulnerable nature brings out the best side of Peter Krause's Quentin in a scene in which they meet for the first time in a city park. Registering Quentin's astonishment to find himself in the company of this beautiful and naive young woman, he smiles and responds to her chatter with such unguarded delight that he becomes the kind and charming gentleman she takes him for. Unfortunately, Krause's connection to Miller's hero rarely returns to this level.
Quentin is a demanding character who asks an actor to accept his narcissistic brooding as intellectual profundity and his arch condescension as moral superiority. Robards pulled it off brilliantly by believing in Quentin's crises of conscience and finding something noble in his anguished struggle to resolve his ethical dilemmas. Krause, who effortlessly projects charm and intelligence on a TV screen, has no bones for this job, and his discomfort shows in his guarded expressions, wary line readings and stiff stage demeanor. Thesp, who also appears at least one, possibly two decades short of Quentin's ideal age, doesn't even look comfortable in the character's suits and ties.
No reflection here on Michael Krass, whose early 1960s costumes are period-perfect in their rigidity of line and timidity of color. In fact, the costumes contribute enormously to the visual coup of the drama's opening scene -- set in Richard Hoover's soaring version of the triumphal TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport -- by adhering to a uniformly gray palette that sums up the sleek and stylish conformity of a self-satisfied era.
The expansive space, whose thrusting staircases and multiple platforms define it as a place of dramatic entrances and exits, plays right into helmer Michael Mayer's hands. However arbitrary some of his casting choices, Mayer has a great feel for the complex construction of Miller's play, staging its fragmented scenes with a fluidity that allows characters to transcend time and place to converge in the constant present.
Although the drama unfolds during the brief time that Quentin spends at the airport waiting for new g.f. Holga to arrive from Austria, "the action takes place," according to Miller, "in the mind, thought and memory of Quentin."
As Quentin waits in limbo, obsessively analyzing his life and assessing whether he's worthy of happiness, characters from his past come and go, offering evidence that causes him to reassess his decision to ask Holga to marry him.
Taken at his word, the man is consumed with guilt for just about everything he has ever done, or left undone. He wasn't a good son; he didn't feel sorrow when his mother died ("Why can't I mourn her?") or when his father lost his money in the stock market crash. He wasn't an honest man; when a communist friend he defended in a controversial political case threw himself under a train, he felt joy ("that joy when a burden dies -- and leaves you safe"). He has no moral integrity; when Holga took him to a Nazi death camp, he felt no outrage. ("I thought I'd be indignant, or angry, but it's like swallowing a lump of earth.")
For sure, he was a lousy husband to his first wife, Louise, who makes the damning case for herself in Jessica Hecht's fiercely intelligent perf. Miller brings a master's touch to these brutal domestic scenes of a marriage on the rocks, giving equal voice and a full emotional arsenal to each combatant. When an aggrieved Quentin turns on Louise and demands, "If you would just once, of your own will, as right as you are -- if you would come to me and say that something, something important was your fault and that you were sorry, it would help" -- and when Louise replies: "Good God! What an idiot!" -- you know there's a playwright in the house.
The poignant scenes between Quentin and Lou (flawlessly played by Mark Nelson), the "saintly professor of law" who kills himself when his career is ruined, have the same kind of cutting honesty.
But in the end, this is Quentin's play, and no matter how much he bewails his guilt, Miller doesn't succeed in convincing us that this self-absorbed, emotionally detached man feels anything but self-satisfaction, or that he deserves absolution for the grief he gave to people who took him at his word and trusted him with their lives. In fact, he's guilty as hell -- of not really believing in his own guilt.