Arts & Culture » Theater

The Spirit Moves

Muddy Waters earns a bravo! New Jewish, not so much.


From Hamlet to A Christmas Carol, audiences have always been suckers for a good ghost story. Two current offerings accept ghosts and exorcisms as reality. One play is more portentous than it need be; one production is less. But their authors are serious men, and their ambitions merit our attention.

Arthur Miller's After the Fall perhaps received too much attention when it premiered in 1964. The timing for this inquisition into a man's soul couldn't have been worse. In the 1960s, so soon after his estrangement from Marilyn Monroe (who was found dead less than two years before After the Fall opened) — and amid the author's foolish denials that the play was about Monroe — critics and audiences had little patience with Miller as a moralist. But 43 years have elapsed since the play's premiere. Distance has put all its events, large and small, into perspective. Today After the Fall unreels like a theatrical time capsule, a compelling crash-course survey of the twentieth century. The evening is crammed with scenes involving the Depression-era 1930s, the Holocaust-searing 1940s, the red-baiting, blacklisting 1950s.

Miller roams the stage as Quentin. Though thinly disguised as a successful attorney rather than a dramatist (here he writes brilliant briefs rather than plays; his "opening nights" occur when he argues before the U.S. Supreme Court), Quentin is actually the entire legal system rolled into one: He is judge and jury, prosecutor and defendant, all on a lacerating mission (within his own mind) to measure the worth of a man. Quentin's belief system has eroded; the ability to grieve eludes him. If the questions he asks of himself — queries about guilt and responsibility, blame and retaliation — seem answerless, at least the play's reach is vast.

It is also constantly problematic. We now know that Miller was forced to rush the play to conclusion in time for its New York opening, and we can sense how overwritten and unpruned the script remains. Act One, which jumps about in time and space in the mode of Death of a Salesman, is cluttered with ghostly characters who appear for one or two scenes and then maddeningly disappear. Act Two takes a new slant. Here Miller is obsessed with Maggie, the pop-singer stand-in for Monroe. Now, instead of moving too fast, the story grinds to a lacerating halt. We find ourselves trapped on a loop to Hell. As the once-naive Maggie morphs into a grasping, clutching, pill-popping harridan, her scenes are so overloaded, we want out. But of course that's the point: Once in, there is no "out" short of death. Miller's confessional self-portrait personifies torment.

Muddy Waters Theatre gives this paroxysm of a play a stunning production. Stripped of bit players and ornamentation of any kind, the severe staging by Jerry McAdams reveals After the Fall as a linchpin in Miller's canon of theatrical conscience. Quentin is a challenge for any actor, yet John Flack takes his time and guides us through the rocky shoals of verbiage. On the page, the self-serving Quentin is always right; everyone else is wrong. But there is not a trace of smugness in Flack's performance. Late in Act One, as he describes the need to kill conscience in order to survive, Quentin's inherent evil is revealed on Flack's skin-shedding face, which becomes a topographic map of suffering. This is a nearly flawless portrayal of an actor-devouring role.

Amy Schwarz's Maggie is equally astonishing. As she self-destructs, her arms and legs detach from the brain; only rarely is her body in sync with the words spewing from her mouth. Maggie transmutes into a character from Westworld, a sex object gone lethally haywire.

Any theater company can stage a playwright's "greatest hits." With all due respect to the many talents involved, when Muddy Waters chose to devote its current season to Miller, there was nothing overly bold about presenting popular entries like The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. But the sloppy, rarely seen After the Fall is a high-stakes gamble. Artistic directors Patty and Cameron Ulrich took a huge risk in staging this problematic work; they have been rewarded with a revelatory production that surpasses all expectations. One can only hope they remember this lesson when they select their plays for next season, which will be devoted to Tennessee Williams.

In contrast to the spectral presences that haunt Quentin's beleaguered memory, there's only one ghost in Donald Margulies' What's Wrong with this Picture? and she's all too real. Both the ghost and the play are on view for all to see at New Jewish Theatre, which is at the nub of the problem.

To begin at the beginning — or perhaps at the end — Shirley has died. She choked on a piece of pork at a Chinese restaurant. (She should have taken her husband Mort's advice and eaten at the deli.) Mort (Alan Knoll) and his grieving son Artie (John Kinney) are surrounded by less-than-comforting relatives. The dithering grandfather (Richard Lewis) confesses that he was 57 when his own mother died, and he wept like a baby. "Better it should happen while you're young," Grandpa Sid consoles. Grandma Bella (Nancy Lewis) offers her own advice: "Go to Israel. See how our trees are doing." Mort's sister (Liz Hopefl) has her eye on Shirley's fur stole.

Eventually the family leaves; father and son are awkwardly alone together. Then the doorbell rings and who should come sweeping in but Shirley (Kat Singleton). Here's where the already-askew plot goes cockeyed. Not because Shirley is a ghost, but rather because everyone is so determined to make her a funny ghost.

New Jewish Theatre is hawking this play as a Jewish Blithe Spirit. It's not. In Blithe Spirit (as in Hamlet, as in It's a Wonderful Life) the ghost is quite selective about choosing who can see it. Most of the comedy in Blithe Spirit emanates from jokes about "What do you mean you can't see her? She's right there!" In this play everyone can see Shirley. Nor is there any admonition that "When you wake up in the morning you'll forget I was here." She's here to stay. That's the premise, and it's a serious premise. To compare this script to the escapism of Blithe Spirit — and to perform it that way — does Margulies a disservice. (Granted, he didn't help himself with that clunky title.)

So if What's Wrong with this Picture? is not a Jewish Blithe Spirit, what is it? It's a Jewish Our Town. More specifically, it is a variation on Act Three of Our Town (subtitled "Death"), in which Emily, who has died much too young, is allowed to return to the real world for one day. At the end of her unexpectedly painful visit, the spectral Emily utters one of the most poignant lines in the American theater: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." Margulies takes that discovery away from the dead and bestows it on the living. It's the son who finally, sadly, asks his ghostly mother, "How am I going to miss you if you won't go?"

In his foreword to the current published text of Our Town, Margulies recalls the lasting impact of having seen the 1988 Lincoln Center staging of Thornton Wilder's play: "I was mesmerized by its subversive power, warmed by its wisdom, shattered by its third act." This, at a time when his own script was still in its formative drafts. But over the years productions of What's Wrong have veered away from the play's originality and have chosen to go for the laughs to the exclusion of all else. Here, in an amiable production directed by Edward Coffield, we meet a Shirley who's perky enough for cheerleading tryouts. In Alan Knoll's Mort we see one of our town's ablest comic actors playing to his strengths, but he hasn't been asked to render compassion — which is what this evening needs if its boldness is to be realized.

Among the principals, the only actor who fully appreciates the play's delicate balance is John Kinney as the son. Kinney seems to understand that comedy is rooted in reality. This knowledge will serve him well next October when New Jewish stages Neil Simon's Broadway Bound.

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