After the Fall | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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National Jewish Theater

When Ella Kazan's staging of After the Fall premiered in 1964, playwright Arthur Miller whipped up a storm of abuse. Coming only two years after the shocking death of Marilyn Monroe, the play seemed tabloid-ugly and rushed into life to exploit the tragedy of Miller's former wife. The characters of the lawyer, Quentin, and the singer, Maggie, were immediately (and correctly) assumed to be stand-ins for the dramatist and the doomed film star. How, people raged, could Miller exploit his private life and display his wife's secret agonies on a public stage?

A quarter-century later we're snowed under with kiss-and-tell autobiographies, romans a clef, and cinematic true confessions. Though few playwrights have pillaged their own privacy to the extent Miller did, today dredging up your life for drama has lost its shock effect. And anyway, by now the particulars of Marilyn's life are public knowledge, have become part of her legend. So whatever universals Miller was pursuing in After the Fall should stand on their own today.

Other successful memory plays, like Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night, have a life apart from the playwright's real-life dirty laundry. But Miller isn't willing--or perhaps able--to transform the past into art. He wants to analyze, interpret, and most of all shape it so that it will yield the writer a clean emotional payoff. O'Neill never minimized the dangers of his past, and Williams always let his characters feel for themselves, but in effect Miller won't even let his characters speak for themselves. Besides, Miller is the kind of writer who must be the hero of his own play. The weakest kind of hero, too--one who wants forgiveness without really putting his sins onstage.

Miller's stand-in, Quentin, talks for three hours, recalling characters and scenes from his life, which are then acted out. He treats the audience as if they were his jury, pleading with them, exhorting them, confessing to them, offering extenuations, and accusing everyone but them. Appropriately, almost every line Quentin speaks is a question, invariably rhetorical. Quentin is both playwright and lawyer, intent on producing evidence: ambling through his life, he uses the power of free association to pull characters out of the void and make them disappear, cross-referencing one memory with another as if they were so many clues to the mystery of himself. Quentin is on a quest, but for what? Perhaps for a credo he can live with, perhaps for an identity, perhaps for a way to escape his solipsism. (He's so desperate that when he visits the blockhouse of a Nazi death camp, he envies the perverse solidarity that piled up all these stones.)

Throughout his long soliloquy Quentin wonders when he'll finally start to feel real. The answer: it can't happen until he sees others as real. But Quentin can't permit those he loves to remain separate beings: he wants to think he has the "power to transform . . . and to save." So Quentin narcissistically fixes on women who live in his light, like the grateful client who keeps waving at him moronically as she chants "I'll always bless you."

Filled with self-doubt but repudiating any responsibility, Quentin offers us an album packed with ill-assorted snapshots of dramatic situations: his mother's regret that marrying early ended any hope of college for her (and Quentin's refusal to accept his "complicity with her discontent"), the ruin of his father's business, his brother's supposed self-sacrifice in taking it over.

Looking back on the McCarthy "red scare," Quentin relives his attempted defense of an old friend who was a leftist scholar. The friend had been squealed on by a colleague, Mickie, who wants to "come clean" (ironically by ruining the families and futures of his friends). But Quentin's defense is in vain: the friend has already incriminated himself--not by joining the Communist Party but by suppressing in his writings the ugly side of state socialism. Quentin's friend becomes one more subway suicide, and Quentin's courageous principles get him fired.

Quentin doesn't fare much better with his marriages, which only serve to expose the "lie of limitless love." His first wife, Louise, is tired of him always shaming her for her lack of a life and resents his neglect and indifference. She too wants to be real, which means breaking away from a man who treats her like a legal brief. (These moments play as if Miller--excuse me, Quentin--thinks that by exposing the flaws in the first marriage he can exonerate himself for what he does in the next.)

Of course our real prurient interest is in Miller's trashy revelations about life with Marilyn, aka Maggie. Quentin fancies he knew Maggie before she was a star--so she becomes in effect Quentin's Galatea, a picture of imagined innocence who turns on her creator. Maggie, of course, is terribly insecure ("I'm a joke to most people") and unconsciously seductive out of loneliness and habit. Desperate for reassurance and certain at first that she's found it in this famous crusading lawyer, Maggie tells Quentin he made her what she is. "I would do anything for you, Quentin. You're like a god." In turn he revels in the wonder of having this gorgeous woman--most men's sexual delight--to come home to every day.

But the rot sets in quickly. Miller punches home the marriage's deterioration in scenes that open, symbolically, with offstage slaps. What Maggie demands of Quentin--an intense devotion that's supposed to make up for all the men who have used her--proves impossible. When that falls, Maggie erupts: fires competent employees on a whim, downs pills with booze, and throws tantrums in public. Whether from guilt or art, Miller (as Quentin) imagines that he was with Marilyn (as Maggie) near the end, pleading "you're not a piece of meat," but helpless to prevent her self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.

Perversely enough, the Marilyn memories are both the most dramatic and most offensive of the play. For all Miller's concern about protecting the privacy of accused writers, he shows precious little interest in protecting his dead wife's private life--and that's an objection that stands despite the passage of 25 years. The details that Miller seems to have lifted from Marilyn's life are astoundingly intimate: favorite expressions like "A person could die today," and how she slept--curled into a fetal position to escape harm. He even gives her a fantasy: making love to her unknown father, then telling him who she is. It's both fascinating and repugnant to know that these scenes would never have been written if Marilyn hadn't died. That her death enabled Miller to write about her may explain Quentin's big outcry: describing her slow death (of barbiturate suffocation) and hearing her death chokes, he accuses himself of secretly wanting her dead.

At the end of the play Quentin hopes that the "gift of courage" in examining his life will outweigh his "wish to kill someone," that as the play's preface puts it, "after the fall," after the death of innocence, he can master his violence "without turning law and peace into chaos."

The closing moments pack an emotional wallop partly because Quentin drops his quest, and thus Miller interrupts his characters less often. But Miller's general tendency to dry out his material, turning memories into moralizing, makes After the Fall a vastly inferior play to A Long Day's Journey Into Night. The narration, which flattens what it should bring to life, turns Miller's past into an illustrated lecture. Eugene O'Neill was confident enough to let his memories speak for themselves; imagine him interrupting the Tyrone family's multifaceted self-destruction to weigh in with an editorial!

But if we can disregard Quentin's frenetic commentary, Sheldon Patinkin's National Jewish Theater revival (a synthesis of various drafts of the play) is a supercharged staging that packs its own wallop. Michael Merritt's semiabstract set contrasts the looming Nazi blockhouse with pieces of half-buried furniture, which seem to suggest Quentin's emotional excavations. From furious start to killer finish, a zealous, gravel-voiced John Mahoney keeps his lawyer on the cutting edge. Mahoney may lack subtlety and even the illusion of introspection, but he gives Quentin all the fascinating fatedness of a traffic accident; he supplies the immediacy that Quentin's desperate apostrophes require.

The other powerhouse performance is Lisa Dodson's as Maggie. Dodson is stunning, especially when she goes precisely out of control, lurching across the stage like a death wish in motion. Of course Dodson hints at the historical Marilyn, playing down whenever possible the airhead stuff, but her Maggie's mad scenes have their own excuse for being. And judging from this script, living with Monroe was a nightmare almost as terrible as living with Miller.

Rondi Reed plays Quentin's mother with a consistent intensity that manages to make sense even of an oft-repeated, half-finished scene in which young Quentin threatens to drown himself in the bathtub. Gary Houston is terrifying as the blacklisted academic, his fear of exposure superbly contrasted with Si Osborne's shameless excuses as his erstwhile friend Mickie. Linnea Todd, wielding a devastating deadpan, plays Louise as if she were single-handedly inventing feminism on the spot, and Jessica Grossman brings an unforced nobillty to the pivotal role of Holga, whom Quentin embraces at the end.

Quentin's quest never catches fire, here solely the fault of the script, but at least Patinkin's production lets us glimpse what Miller had at heart.

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