I’m not here–I’m on the way back from the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where I saw Design for Living last night–but Our Girl has kindly done me the favor of posting the weekly teaser for my Wall Street Journal theater column. This time around, I reviewed the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, an autobiographical play in which Marilyn Monroe figures prominently, and Lincoln Center Festival’s The Elephant Vanishes, a theater piece created by Simon McBurney of Complicite.
Not to put too fine a point on it, After the Fall is a major disaster:
Of the American playwrights who made it big in the ’40s and ’50s, Arthur Miller is the one whose star has dipped lowest. To be sure, he’s still big in Europe, mostly for the obvious reasons (European critics eat up talky plays about how the U.S. is a wasteland of vulgar, small-minded conformism). Yet only three new shows by Mr. Miller have been produced on Broadway in the past quarter-century–none of them successfully–and though several of his earlier plays have had solid runs in revival, the ever-ubiquitous “Death of a Salesman” is the only one that now seems a good bet to hold the stage permanently.
So what possessed the Roundabout Theatre Company to exhume “After the Fall,” a lead-plated example of the horrors that result when a humorless playwright unfurls his midlife crisis for all the world to see? Don’t ask me–I’m a critic, not a producer. All I know is that this preeningly self-important play, written in 1964 and revived last night at the American Airlines Theatre, ranks right up there with “Bombay Dreams” on my list of Unendurable Clunkers of 2004….
The only time Mr. Miller manages to break free of his solipsism, however briefly, is in the first couple of scenes involving Maggie/Marilyn. Apparently she managed to get his attention, just as Carla Gugino gets ours. A TV starlet, this is her Broadway debut, and while she makes the mistake of imitating Monroe instead of suggesting her, she does it with powerfully seductive conviction. Once she extricates herself from this misbegotten production, my guess is that Ms. Gugino will soon go on to much better things.
Nobody else in “After the Fall” is memorable, least of all Peter Krause, another Broadway debutant who bears an uncanny resemblance to Greg Marmalard, the smooth-faced, toadying frat boy of “Animal House.” Mr. Krause is best known for playing an undertaker in the trendy TV series “Six Feet Under,” which seems appropriate enough, since he’s a hopeless stiff on stage. I’m not sure exactly how much secondary blame for the remainder of this mess should attach to Michael Mayer, the director, but there’s more than enough to go around.
The Elephant Vanishes, on the other hand, was almost perfectly wonderful:
No small part of the trouble with “After the Fall” is that Mr. Miller, who hasn’t a poetic bone in his body (though he thinks he does), tried in vain to write a lyrical memory play. True lyric theater is all about poetry–the poetry of the ear and eye alike–and “The Elephant Vanishes,” directed by Simon McBurney and co-produced by the Setagaya Public Theatre of Tokyo and Complicite, Mr. McBurney’s London-based theatrical troupe, is one of the most bewitchingly poetic things I’ve been lucky enough to see on a stage.
Presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2004, “The Elephant Vanishes,” performed in Japanese with English-language supertitles, was adapted by Mr. McBurney from the short stories of Haruki Murakami, whose surrealistic tales of Tokyo are hugely popular in Japan. Mr. McBurney has turned them into a fine-grained multi-media fantasy about the loneliness and mystery of postmodern Japanese urban life–an avant-garde “Lost in Translation,” if you will. Though the New York State Theater was a bit too large for the production to register properly, the eerily discontinous vignettes spun by Mr. McBurney out of Mr. Murakami’s prose somehow managed to fill its cavernous interior to enthralling effect.
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