REVIEW: After the Fall (Eclipse Theatre)

When an intellectual looks for love in all the wrong places

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Eclipse Theatre presents
   
After the Fall
   
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arthur Miller just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? After the Fall, the play that is his sojourn through love’s conundrums and dead ends, bears Miller’s soul for all to see at Eclipse Theatre’s home, the Greenhouse Theater Center. Miller’s devastating marriage to Marilyn Monroe, inextricably intertwined with our country’s descent into OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA paranoid McCarthyism (and Miler’s dealings with this paranoia), really did a number on his head. Shortly afterward, no doubt, the demise of Marilyn herself really, really did a number on his head. The result is After the Fall.

What does one do about conscious or unconscious betrayals—of the heart or of one’s principles? How does one go on after love has died and disillusionment has almost totally taken over? These seem to be the greatest moral pre-occupations for After the Fall’s excessively intellectual protagonist, Quentin (Nathaniel Swift).

But, wait. Perhaps to judge his intellectualism as excessive is a dumbed-down way of looking at him. Arthur Miller flourished in an era when America had many public intellectuals. Those intellectuals were disciplined to constantly interrogate the state of our nation’s cultural and civic life. Now, in the place of public intellectuals, we have talking-point-addled pundits and reality TV show celebrities. In terms of intellectual expression in American civic life, we have become a very cheap date.

Therefore, Quentin’s conundrums may not exactly be ours, whether they are about maintaining a pristine conscience in the middle of fallible human interactions or taking on overwhelming personal responsibility, to the point of seeing the roots of the Holocaust in one’s minute personal betrayals. Quentin suffers from serious survivor guilt. No doubt about it, the man is a survivor—not of the Holocaust per se, but certainly the McCarthy Era.

Apparently, surviving the McCarthy Era can take a lot out of you. As a Quixotic leftist lawyer, tilting against the onslaught of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Quentin is surviving the purge of leftists from American academia, from American media, from the everyday workplace. Indeed, he is surviving the purge of leftists from American thought. But try as he may, the friends he is trying to save are going down.

Quentin is prepared to defend Lou, his old Communist academic buddy—played with spot-on geeky anxiety by Eustace Allen. Lou is a man on the verge–on the verge of having his career decimated, his livelihood pulled out from under him like a magician’s trick. Other lefty friends, like Mickey (Eric Leonard), are ready to cave into HUAC and surrender names. Meanwhile, Lou’s wife, Elsie (Nina O’Keefe), salaciously comes on to Quentin with Lou not far away and further scenes reveal her to be nothing less than a sexual menace–a menace O’Keefe delivers with just one look.

Quentin is discovering, to his uncomprehending shock, his friends’ morally compromised natures. Even Lou admits to espousing lies in his academic work on the Communist Party. Lou’s book was received well enough during America’s World War II alliance with the Soviet Union but now the whole thing is crashing down upon him.

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Amid all this, Quentin’s marriage is souring and failing like all his other relationships. Amid the ruined lives, the cynical hypocrisy of colleagues distancing themselves from Joe McCarthy’s victims–amid self-compromise at every turn—why can’t our hero get a little love?

Quentin’s wife, Louise (Julie Daley), seems to have nothing more to give. Daley’s tight and sharp portrayal of Louise is by turns both sympathetic and bitterly judgmental. We hear the voice of “The Feminine Mystique” when Louise complains that Quentin doesn’t listen to her, only uses her as a sounding board for his own intellect. But we also hear an older, more Puritanical voice in her petty accusations that he finds other women sexually attractive. He has never slept with any other woman and feels guilty feeling attraction to women other than Louise, but Louise sees his straying sexual thoughts as infidelity and she holds them against him, just as she withholds sex from his attempts to ameliorate the growing distance between them.

There are more painful scenes to watch in After the Fall, but close in the running are Quentin and Louise’s arguments. They are an accurate depiction of two highly intellectual people so lost in their heads they can no longer open up emotionally. Problems that other couples would solve with a good argument, then a good fuck, Quentin and Louise cannot even negotiate without an interpreter. Perhaps divorce is the only thing, since they can’t generate the sexual interest necessary to get over ideological disagreements or personal flaws. What must have seemed like the ideal match in college has turned into a prison for them both.

Perhaps what Quentin needs is a more free-flowing sexual spirit, a woman with a sensual orientation, a woman who lives in the eternal now–maybe a woman who is the sex symbol of the age, like Marilyn Monroe. But it’s grossly unfair to write off Nora Fiffer’s interpretation of Maggie as a Marilyn Monroe imitation. Fiffer takes the role and makes it thoroughly her own. Any inflections she borrows from Monroe make her performance purely impressionistic and entirely original. One can know everything about Monroe’s life and still see Maggie up there on the stage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The marriage between Miller and Monroe has always seemed like an improbable match; the marriage between Quentin and Maggie, far more realistic. Part of this is Swift’s youthful, corporate, Everyman appeal but another part is Miller’s psychologically acute take on Quentin. If divorce and disillusionment have upset Quentin’s apple cart and dumped him into the realm of uncertainty, then he is starting over almost as new and green as Maggie in her burgeoning singing career.

But Maggie still belongs to a younger, more rebellious, more sexual generation–the 50s generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Monroe, Brando, and Dean emerged just a beat before the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, but that didn’t make them any less rarin’ to go. After the Fall’s Maggie anticipates the qualities of the Boomer generation; sexual openness and adventurousness, full embodiment of a “be here now” attitude, childlike narcissism and arrogance, and a propensity to succumb to drug abuse—although it’s just good, old-fashioned alcohol and barbiturates that drag Maggie and her marriage into hell. Quentin really has gotten in over his head with this one.

Watching Swift and Fiffer play out this doomed pair’s degeneration is like watching two perfectly matched martial artists having it out in the ring. Theirs is a confrontation that could easily slip into the clichés of “Days of Wine and Roses” or a million other addiction dramas, but Scott’s direction keeps their battle taut and economical. Eclipse’s production should sell out for their Second Act scene alone.

Happily, the production doesn’t need to rest on two leads. Quentin’s progress through time and memory is an actor’s Iron Man marathon and Swift stays the course, receiving absolute support from the impeccable cast surrounding him. Cast cohesion is no small feat in an impressionistic and cinematic drama based solely on memory and yearning, but hold together they do. Their characters are the skeletal bones of Quentin’s memory and hold the keys to unraveling his perpetual guiltiness. Guilty memory, especially regret over not being able to save Lou or Maggie, has its claws deep into Quentin—to the point where one wonders whether he has more of a love affair with guilt than he could ever have with any woman.

Is that the cornerstone of Miller’s heart—thoroughly Jewish and unceasing guilt? One might consider Quentin’s survivor’s guilt almost pathological; its presence balanced only by the solid family team of Mother (Susan Monts-Bologna), Father (Jerry Bloom) and brother Dan (Joe McCauley). In them one awakens to Quentin’s ethnic roots, as well as his parent’s survivor’s instinct in the face of the Crash of 1929. Quentin supposes he got his instinct from his Mother, rendered by Monts-Bologna with crafty intelligence and comic intensity. Rather than being able to own it, it’s just another thing that makes him feel guilty.

But the truth is that everyone in Quentin’s family can be called a survivor—certainly of the Crash and of any other personal or political disasters that came afterwards. One is always a survivor, at least until one dies. The real question is if life is still worth living after everything else—including justice, love, and principle—has completely fallen apart. Not to diminish After the Fall as being one, big, Jewish survivor’s guilt fest, but the Holocaust is the play’s constant specter, even in scenes when it is never alluded to. Quentin finally finds another love interest in Holga (Sally Eames-Harlan) because she can confirm for him that no one who survived the Holocaust was innocent. Perhaps more than love itself, he needs another survivor to show him how to go on. It’s his final acknowledgment of his need that makes his survival noble.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

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Extra Credit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinal scene of After the Fall

   
   

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REVIEW: Resurrection Blues (Eclipse Theatre)

Beyond the crucifixion

 

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Eclipse Theatre presents
 
Resurrection Blues
 
by Arthur Miller 
directed by Nathaniel Swift
Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 9th
(more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

A little miracle is taking place at the Greenhouse Theatre CenterEclipse Theatre is brilliantly executing a late and oft misunderstood play by Arthur Miller . Don’t be deceived by the primitive set, the rather flat proscenium space or relatively low production values. Director Nathaniel Swift’s vision for Miller’s only satire works around all these shortcomings. Even the monochromatic set design (Steph Charaska ), whose cheesy faux rocks look like they came off the set of the original Star Trek, become imbued with a kind of poetry, as do the silent, dancing Cuentistas (Jazmin Corona, N. K. Gutierrez, and Lizbeth Silva) who pull double-duty pushing the set pieces between scenes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With the exception of Jesus geeks, so much about Resurrection Blues could be lost upon the audience—as its 2006 premier in London demonstrates, review after review. By all accounts its unveiling at the Old Vic, under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey and its director, Robert Altman, was an epic fail. What a difference a great or even good production makes for a play’s reception. Michael Billington, critic at The Guardian, who had seen a 2002 production in Minneapolis, calls Resurrection Blues “sparky and neo-Shavian,” sighting predominant problems with Altman’s direction.

However, Paul Taylor of The Independent, upon seeing the same production, surmises that “Miller did not have a natural gift for freewheeling satire;” Kate Bassett, in an earlier Independent review calls Miller’s satire “embarrassingly feeble;” and Jeremy Austin of The Stage calls Resurrection Blues a “lumbering, rambling half-finished effort,” speculating that the man problems of one character represents “Miller’s own impotence in the final years of his life.”

Well, they can all sit down to a big plate of crow. Impotent? Feeble? Lumbering? No. This is an American master at the top of his game. Of course, it is not The Crucible. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 50 years before; he didn’t need to write another. Resurrection Blues is a satire that shares similar themes on religious zealotry, the political or social desperation that leads to either scapegoating or revolution or suicide. Mixed with a soupcon of rampant, hypocritical commercialism; magnified exponentially by reality-show culture; put on steroids; shaken, not stirred–that’s’ precisely how Swift and his cast play it.

Indeed, there were moments when I questioned whether I could keep up with Miller’s tenaciously mercurial wit or Eclipse’s exactingly fast pace. For those feeling up to it, this show will make them feel the burn—and maybe just a little glow afterwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA No review could possibly do all the performances justice. Let’s just say Nina O’Keefe as Jeanine, the wheelchair-bound, disillusioned Marxist, starts everyone off with an incredible warm-up. “I failed as a revolutionary and as a dope addict,” she says. She also fails at suicide–although that actually turns out to be a good thing. If fact, maybe even her attempt at suicide wasn’t such a bad thing either—especially since, after leaping from her window, Jeanine starts living each passing moment with passionate intensity. At the pavement she meets with the mysterious healing stranger at the heart of Resurrection Blues. He is nothing less than a spiritual revolutionary, whose mystical powers generate more political upset than any Uzi-packing militia.

Attempted suicide as religious experience—that’s only the beginning of Miller’s tasty treats. O’Keefe knows very well the poetic power of Miller’s dialogue. Her concentration never relents.

Want another little taste? There’s Henri Schulz (Ron Butts), Jeanine’s philosopher father, a Hamlet-like intellectual if ever there was. Butts plays a man too overeducated for his poor country’s good . . . or his family’s good . . . or his own good. He portrays Schulz with just the right balance of pompous erudition and guilty, compromised, liberal befuddlement. Especially in his homeland, an anonymous third world country, all he can be is compromised. His extreme privilege, philosophical bent, and vacillating social consciousness reduce him to being the ultimate fish out of water. He returns home only to repair his relationship with his daughter, the suicidal revolutionary. So he tells his cousin, the country’s frenetic dictator, General Felix Barriaux (Matt Welton)—the character with the man problem.

As for impotence, it’s not just in generalissimo’s dick, but also in his administration. Nothing much can be done, not even ruthlessly, in an impossible country, where even good plans go to rot with corruption, betrayal and backwardness far before their completion. Welton plays Barriaux with all the manic chagrin and desperation of a tyrant who will bring order by any means necessary, even when he admits it probably won’t stop their downward slide in the face of globalization.

But he still has one small trick up his sleeve: the capture and crucifixion of Jeanine’s mysteriously powerful and dangerously inspiring stranger. And he has sold the exclusive television rights to it to an American network. Millions can be gained, for sorely needed development, at the cost of one spiritually endowed freak. For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.

Here’s where the “Miller-can’t-do-satire” thing gets exposed for what it is. Miller guides a character down one road; the character turns tail and runs down another. Just when you think you’ve got the play figured out, it turns into another sort of play. It may all be too much to keep up with, but you’d better keep up or you’ll miss the laughs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some of the best laughs occur at the expense of the facile and fecklessness Americans who arrive to shoot the crucifixion. Chief among savaged American prototypes is Skip Cheeseboro (Joe McCauley), the TV producer. His business school mentality can’t be bothered with Schulz’s philosophical quandaries over going through with it. Yet, he’s sharp enough to wield every ounce of industry doublespeak and faux multicultural appreciation in the service of securing the gruesome spectacle for his network. “But, realistically,” says Skip to his startled director, Emily Shapiro (Rebecca Prescott), who presumes that she came to shoot a commercial, “who am I to be disgusted?” McCauley’s cold and slippery performance make us doubt that he ever could be.

At least there’s lots of warmth and play in Prescott’s slightly ditzy director, Emily, whose distaste for the crucifixion gamely leads her to attempt seduction of the smitten General Barriaux. JP Pierson shows us some good, old, hippy practicality in his portrayal of Stanley. Stanley’s interrogation by General Barriaux shapes up to being an odd couple encounter of the oddest kind.

Stanley’s the BFF of the present-day Messiah, a miraculous, sensitive misfit who goes by the name of Ralph or Charlie or whatever he’s feeling that day. In fact Pierson’s performance holds a critical center in the last 15 minutes of the last scene of the play. On the industry night when I saw Resurrection Blues, this was the moment when the cast’s prodigious pace, maintained with accuracy and aplomb throughout, began to drag and lose momentum. It’s a bear of a closing scene, in which each character reveals the hypocrisy or authenticity of their motives for wanting Ralph, or Charlie, to stay and be crucified or to freely go. It has to be artificial enough to maintain the even feel of Miller’s satire, but also natural enough to evoke the spontaneity with which each character addresses their uncertain savior. Such things can be worked out in the middle of production, yet still exact crucial tests on a cast’s concentration.

Miller’s morality tale gets to have it all–worldly cynicism and the possibility of real love, truth told to power and power confessing its own grasping frailties, rage unleashed against stupefying oppression and holy relief from desiccating anger, overwhelming doubt and unyielding faith, and miracles, miracles in the most impossible places–especially in the most impossible places. Would that Miller had lived 50 years more to write comedies of this quality for every tragedy he gave us. We need him now more than ever.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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Review: Artistic Home’s “Days to Come”

  The Artistic Home Shows Weaknesses, Not Strengths, of Days To Come

 

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The Artistic Home presents:

Days To Come

by Lillian Hellman
directed by Kathy Scambiatterra
thru November 29th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.         — Lillian Hellman

DTC06_Wilke and Easter Is it possible to be too reverential while executing a particular work? True, Days To Come was written by the larger-than-life Lillian Hellman. In it, tragic things happen, lives are irreparably damaged, and the play is full of social import. All the same it is still a melodrama, not a tragedy. One’s impression upon seeing it onstage now at The Artistic Home is that director Kathy Scambiatterra has seriously mistaken one for the other.

This is not to write off Days To Come as a lesser Hellman work and I hope no one reads my use of “melodrama” in any pejorative way. Melodrama is an extremely versatile, complex, and enduring genre. One for which, as the above quotation shows, Hellman had immense respect. Most of all, more often than not, melodrama is intensely personal. In the end, Days To Come is about the very personal costs of falling for fast, slipshod, and cutthroat solutions to both personal and larger social problems.

Artistic Home’s production succeeds most when it fulfills the melodramatic mode of the play—as it does in those scenes centering on the strikebreakers/thugs hired by the Rodman family to disrupt the ongoing strike at their factory. Scenes where Mossie (Eustace Allen) and Joe (Jeremy Glickstein) play cards while they “guard” the Rodman house build with crackling intensity; while Wilke (Gerard Jamroz) their boss oozes criminality out of every pore. Jamroz absolutely shines in this role—coy, sleazy, and unctuous when he needs to be; pouring on coarse brutality when it serves. His performance almost steals the play.

In fact, Hellman’s criminals seem to come from the pen of her lifetime partner, Dashiell Hammet. But then, they had been together for five years by the time Days To Come premiered.

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In stark contrast, Scambiaterra chooses to keep the rest of her cast buttoned down until the final scene. Sadly, what goes missing is a sense of history between all characters and a strong ensemble sensibility between cast members. Plus, direction during the first act often seems as stilted as some of the dialogue; the actors often look like chess pieces moved around upon a board than people inhabiting a living room.

Patrick Raynor as Tom Firth, the working class best friend of Andrew Rodman (Joe McCauley), brings refreshing intensity upon his entrance into the family hothouse environment. Tim Patrick Miller, as the labor organizer Jim Whalen, brings a nice touch of Humphrey Bogart toughness to his role, even if some lines bring him dangerously close to sounding like a pompous white knight.

Once the strike devolves into violence, Scambiaterra’s direction finally unleashes the cast in a big family blow-up, a dramatic impact lessened by the lack of any reasonable foreshadowing. Still, the biggest, most enjoyable scene-stealer is Justine Serino as Cora, venting her jealous rage at philandering sister-in-law Julie (Leavey Ballou).

It’s here Joe McCauley’s role as the family scion, Andrew Rodman, finally comes into its own—and it’s a palpable relief when it does. His character’s trajectory veers the closest to tragedy. What is not clear is whether, at the start of the play, he realized that he could lose the town that he loved the most through his own passivity. If Hellman’s writing does not make that clear, then the actor must make that choice—as if the whole world of this play depends upon it.

Rating: ★★½

 

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