Many old plays are like schooners from some other time washed up on a beach. All they require to make them navigable again is an understanding of the human beavhior that does not change from century to century. Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" requires more.
Unlike Miller's other plays, which are built on psychological understanding. "The Crucible" is a polemic. What originally filled its sails were the stormy winds of McCarthyism. It much have been electifying in 1953 to hear the line, "Are the accusers always holy now?"
In the midst of the Cold War hysteria, it took great courage to write that line. But 40 years later, the line seems, like much of the play around it, rhetorical. Miller was - understandably - so eager to draw parallels between the McCarthy witch hunts and those of 17th-century Salem that his characters are like the poppets that play a key role in the play. They're hastily contrived symbolic toys it gives you pleasure to stick pins into.
What has made "The Crucible" one of Miller's most popular and often-revived plays is its overt theatricality. The scenes in which the accusing girls go into hysterics are sure-fire crowd pleasers. The courtroom scene in which the judge forces a woman to lie to protect her husband is a shameless piece of audience manipulation, but it works.
Because audiences invariably respond to it, "The Crucible" was probably a good choice for Tony Randall to begin his National Actors Theater with, but the production illustrates the problems of a star-oriented company.
The play was apparently done because Martin Sheen wanted to do it. Sheen plays John Proctor, a man who tries to remain independent of claustrophobic Salem but who is defeated by his own integrity and honesty.
Sheen, whose film work I have always admired, is less persuasive on stage. His voice, though stronger than it was in the lamentable "Julius Caesar" at the Public in 1988, still sounds strained and unheroic. His performance rarely goes beyond an earnestness that registers Proctor's sincerity but not his courage or inner resources. The camera would amplify the pleading look in Sheen's eyes. The stage requires a depth he does not display.
Maryann Plunkett is much more moving as his embattled wife. Madeleine Potter, the leader of the accusing girls, never makes us understand why Proctor was drawn to her. Jane Adams is extremely strong as the one girl who tries to be honest. There are solid performances by George Martin, John Fiedler, John Beal, Martha Scott and especially Fritz Weaver as the malevolent, sanctimonious judge.
Director Yossi Yzraely has not been able to mold these actors into a solid ensemble. Michael York, for example, has an overwrought grandiloquence that lessens the effectiveness of his well-meaning pastor. Many of the performances are just wooden.
It was, however, imaginative to set the play in a haunted forest, which David Jenkins' set conjures up powerfully. The solo cello also amplifies the gloomy mood. Strangely, though this production moved more coherently than the most recent revival (at the Roundabout), it was less moving.
First, before squeaking out another word, let me dutifully applaud the debut of Tony Randall's National Actors Theater, which last night pulled up its first official curtain at the Belasco Theater, for its initial classic season, which is planned to enfold Miller, Feydeau and Ibsen in an ensemble embrace.
The seeming difference between this and Broadway's two existing classic theaters - Circle-in-the-Square and the Roundabout - is that most, though far from all, of the actors will appear in more than one play during the season, and the star power of the casting throughout is unusually high. The idea is ambitious, the concept is sound and the welcome is warm.
Now to business. The really good news is that this National Actors Theater has gotten under way with a first-rate staging of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." It's not perfect - not by any means - but it has the bearing and authority that one would hope from a company daring to call itself a National Actors Theater, a title that is not especially modest.
This is an odd but great play. Based on the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, it deliberately has a slow start, but once going it builds to a gleaming dramatic climax of man and conscience.
When first produced in 1953 it was seen largely as an allegory of "McCarthyism" - the Senate's anti-Communist witch hunt with all its paraphernalia of naming names.
Now with McCarthyism merely a bitter footnote in history, the play can indeed be seen plainer - as an historical drama with something in common with Shaw's "St. Joan." But whereas Shaw is all sophistry and cleverness, Miller goes to the heart of the matter, partly through inventing a marvelously robust language for his play.
The madness of Salem, that whole witches' brew of superstition, bigotry, cowardice, puritanism, conformity and religiosity, is one of the most fascinating episodes in American colonial history, and Miller uses it as a departure point for a play - conceivably his finest - of tragic dimension.
Surprisingly perhaps the two best productions I have ever seen of "The Crucible" have both come from Britain's National Theater, Laurence Olivier's staging in 1965 and Howard Davies' last year, and both took a realistic view of the play, letting its general theme arise from its particularities.
By contrast, the present director, Yossi Yzraely - once artistic director of Israel's Habimah National Theater - is looking for a more stylized, at times almost abstract, view. The settings by David Jenkins set the whole action in the middle of a threatening forest with just a few props, furniture and Richard Nelson's persuasive lighting to suggest place and action.
This effectively undercuts the play's naturalistic methodology as well as divorcing the acting from the text. After a time you grow accustomed to this bizarre directorial choice, but the staging never helps. But - to an extent - what it does do is to focus the attention where perhaps Randall most wanted it, on the actual acting. And this indeed is the strength of the production.
The central role is that John Proctor, and here Martin Sheen, rough, ready, even if at times over-histrionic, splendidly conveys a man fighting to find the sticking point of his beliefs.
But there are plenty of other vivid performances - Maryann Plunkett as the bewildered wife accused of witchcraft; Fritz Weaver as the imperious hanging judge, Danforth; Michael York as the eventually horrified expert on witchcraft, the Rev. Hale; Jane Adams as the sulky Mary Warren, who saves her own skin; and George N. Martin as a man finding he has doomed his own wife by nothing more than accusing her of reading books.
The weak link in the performance comes from Madeleine Potter as Abigail Williams, the servant girl whose rejection by Proctor, her sometime lover, sparks off the tragedy's final movement. Potter seems sullen but sexless - a far cry from the sensual and smoldering bundle of resentment suggested by Sarah Miles in the Olivier production.
But by and large this is a great team effort, and pushes the aim of a major New York acting ensemble significantly nearer fulfillment.
P.S. This same aim was very close to the heart of the late Eva LaGallienne. Her last of many attempts came in 1964. Irony: The final play was Miller's "The Crucible." The final theater was the Belasco.
A National Actors Theater performing classics at reasonable ticket prices in the beautiful Belasco Theater: is Tony Randall's new company a theatrical fantasy come true or a television star's ego trip? This is a question that audiences, not interfering board members or drama critics or Broadway's harsh economics, will answer, for Mr. Randall has attracted full houses of subscribers to his inaugural season of three plays. If they like what they see, they'll be back for season No. 2.
One assumes that their patience will extend beyond the company's stately opening production, "The Crucible." Like the National Actors Theater itself at this early point, this evening must be applauded in principle. It brings together nearly two dozen actors, some of them first-rate, for the worthy cause of performing Arthur Miller's evergreen drama, written during the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950's, about the Salem witch hunts of 1692. The cast includes welcome old favorites of the New York stage (Martha Scott, John Beal), popular character actors of more recent seasons (Maryann Plunkett, Madeleine Potter, George N. Martin, Jane Adams) and a trio of stars (Martin Sheen, Michael York, Fritz Weaver).
But even actors of this quality need direction, and that help is not forthcoming from Yossi Yzraely, a former artistic director of the Habimah National Theater in Israel. Mr. Yzraely has staged a stiff high-school edition of Mr. Miller's play. "The Crucible" is doled out as something that is good for you, sour medicine that must be swallowed slowly.
The actors tend to saw the air with their hands, thump their chests and declaim to the Belasco's two balconies. Worse, those cast members who are not speaking often surround the orators in semicircular formations, making an exaggerated show of listening with varying degrees of head-cocking approval or open-mouthed disbelief. Mr. Yzraely seems to have directed the play as if it were written in 1692 instead of set then. What emerges is a bogus Puritan pageant more redolent of Old Sturbridge Village than of Mr. Miller's divided community of frightened, often sexually fevered souls succumbing to whispering campaigns, mass psychosis and the tyranny of the mob.
I won't bore you by repeating the familiar, and undying, moral lessons of Mr. Miller's piece and lecturing on how relevant they are today. It is not the playwright's preachments that make "The Crucible" his most produced play, in any case, but his ability to animate his moral debate through characters who may talk in clotted Puritanese (the work's one conspicuous flaw) but who are manifestly human. This is especially the case with John Proctor, the guilt-ridden, Hawthorne-esque protagonist who is no saint until that climactic moment when justice must rise up against evil. Mr. Sheen, looking more like Daniel Boone than a New England farmer, loses that complexity in a vocally constricted performance of sloppy emotions and knee-jerk right eous indignation. He also seems in less than full command of his lines, despite the fact that "The Crucible" put off its press opening nearly as long as did "Nick and Nora."
John Hale, the fascinating clergyman who undergoes the most radical change of heart in the play, is also allotted but a single (and weepy) note in the reading of Mr. York, who looks here as if he stepped off a Dutch Masters cigar box. No less monochromatic are the drama's villainous conspiracy theorists and name namers, who, with the exception of Mr. Weaver's majestically malevolent Deputy-Governor Danforth, are routinely presented as snarling, physically unattractive screamers. By far the most compelling performance comes from Ms. Plunkett, who conveys the torn loyalties and deep conscience of Elizabeth Proctor with a neurotic intelligence that keeps sanctimoniousness at bay. It is no surprise to learn that this fine actress's connection with her role predates this production; she played Elizabeth under the direction of Arvin Brown at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven two years ago.
Also admirable is David Jenkins's all-purpose set, a clearing in the wilderness dominated by tall, barren trees and a pitch-black sky. But the terror implicit in this environment and in Mr. Miller's vision of a poisoned America on trial rarely spills past the footlights. In 1991, surely, it is not asking too much that the theater bring forth a "Crucible" that is at least as dramatic as the televised cross-examinations of Clarence Thomas and William Kennedy Smith.