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Circle Jerks

Photo by Ed Krieger

IF WE'RE TO BELIEVE ARTHUR MILLER, MAGGIE, IN HIS play After the Fall, is not modeled on Miller's late wife Marilyn Monroe; nor should the strained marriage of the drama's goal-oriented lawyer and his intuitive, suicidal wife be mistaken for Miller's own private hell living with the raging, dying Hollywood icon. Nobody believes Miller on this point -- probably not even Miller himself, and certainly not director Stephen Sachs, whose splendid production at the Fountain Theater features Tracy Middendorf as a Maggie so bleached blond and dollied up with girly, breathy phrases, the only thing missing is a rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."

Meanwhile, over at the Pasadena Playhouse, in the seventh scene of David Hare's The Blue Room -- a roundelay of erotic couplings in 10 sketches, based on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde and made stupidly notorious by Nicole Kidman's bared bottom at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1998 -- Arabella Field plays the Model: a 17-year-old free spirit dressed in a tarty skirt and tight yellow sweater that goes all the way down . . . oh, well below her nipples. And woven into her little shoulder bag, staring out at us, is the face of Marilyn Monroe.

This shoulder bag creates a point of connection between the two plays, and playwrights, that's really not as flimsy as it first seems (even though the bag is costume designer Maggie Morgan's invention, not Hare's). The plays, separated by two generations, are both about the continental divide between men and women, and the fundamental inability of sex to bridge it. The plays also suggest that both carnality and the isolation around that divide feed each other in an endless cycle. All that steaminess onstage stands in for the smoke of hell. All the pouting and cavorting, the lurid postures and the flashes of nudity in both productions -- these are as titillating and impenetrable as any glossy magazine photograph. What passes for closeness is really about distance.

There are yet more connections between the plays and their writers. Consider that Miller and Hare, the Yank and the Brit, are both (or have been) half of a celebrity couple: Miller's second marriage to Monroe parallels Hare's second (and current) marriage, in 1992, to French fashion designer Nicole Farhi -- to whom Hare now dedicates all his writing. And both playwrights reveal a similar leftist conscience throughout the body of their work. Miller admitted to signing petitions and meeting sympathetically with Communists in his youth; he also refused to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Miller hammers at tyrannies in, respectively, our military, economic and political systems -- and does so in the context of domestic strife in American families.



Field and Von Dohlen
doing the rounds
Photo by Craig Schwartz


Meanwhile, in Britain, Hare's 1975 play Fanshen (set in Communist China) is Brecht redux, while the ascent of Margaret Thatcher gave Hare all the impetus he needed for a series of dramaturgical left hooks. In Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War, Hare indicted the Church of England, the legal system and the Labour Party with such eloquence that the works have come to be known as his "State of the Nation" trilogy. In Skylight, a businessman walks back into the life of his former mistress, now teaching deprived kids in London's East End; recrimination is slopped all over the boards as Hare wrestles with his own liberalism.

Yet in After the Fall and The Blue Room, each playwright mutes his social and political complaints in order to bring to the fore matters of the heart -- and, of course, sexuality. What a disappointment, then, that The Blue Room, among the most anticipated openings of the year, is such a washout.

 

ARTHUR SCHNITZLER WROTE HIS SERIES OF SEXual skits, Reigen, in 1900. Fifty years later, Max Ophuls used them as the basis for his film La Ronde, and almost 50 years after that, Hare joined a parade of writers who have attempted to update the play -- in this case, "to one of the great cities of the world." In Schnitzler's daisy chain of liaisons, a vulnerable young woman meets a soldier on the way to his barracks; in scene two, the soldier has a fling with a chambermaid, then the chambermaid with a student, and so on, until the original young woman returns at play's end. (A London critic aptly described the play as a theatrical equivalent of Ravel's Bolero.) Hare remains cloyingly faithful to Schnitzler's milieu despite updates, such as the soldier becoming a cab driver; the chambermaid, an au pair. The consequence is the dubious implication that nothing has changed over a century in the power dynamics between men and women, when nothing could be further from the truth. Hare's adaptation ignores the effects on sexual relations of women's entry into the workplace, and other forms of social advancement, which renders it close to useless as a contemporary commentary, but still sort of fun as a play.

The point of Schnitzler's work is that sex between people of different social stations removes them from those stations, that lust is taboo because it's so antisocial, so private and transcendent. Schnitzler's play employs 10 actors, presumably to show the variety of characters in the public world versus the commonality of sex in the private one. But Hare's version calls for only two actors -- here, Arabella Field and Lenny Von Dohlen -- to enact all 10 roles. This creates a daunting challenge for any duo, given that the play is, by design, 90 minutes of variations on the same scene. (No wonder director Sam Mendes had Nicole Kidman stripping, and her leading man, Iain Glen, doing cartwheels in the buff.)

Both performers' striking vocal idiosyncrasies -- Von Dohlen's reedy tenor and Field's nasal belt -- overwhelm the multiple characters they're attempting to impersonate. Furthermore, the actors' erotic gestures are too obvious and hackneyed to generate much heat. Von Dohlen's leather-jacketed cabbie, for instance, seems a parody of Eric Bogosian with traces of an English dialect he can't seem to excise; his pompous Playwright is not so much a character as a running commentary on one.

Director David Schweizer may simply be the wrong match for a play of such nuance, given the drift toward opera and the penchant for broad flippancy he's displayed in productions such as The Orestia and Salome. His production is as sleek and superficial as an evening of sketches at the Groundlings. And that's not the play Hare wrote.

AFTER THE FALL (1964) MARKED MILLER'S RETURN TO the stage after a 10-year absence, and concerns a lawyer, Quentin (Morlan Higgins), who is terrified, after two divorces, of entering into a new relationship with a German woman named Holga (Colleen Quinn). And so, the play slips back into an examination of Quentin's two marriages -- of the friction with his first, harshly critical and possessive wife, Louise (Jacqueline Schultz), and, of course, his infatuation with open wound Maggie (Middendorf), somebody he can save and be adored by. Maggie's insecurity, coupled with her rising fame as a pop singer, transforms her into a maelstrom of jealousy, malice and self-absorption; when she begins to describe her husband's emotional detachment, she sounds a lot like Louise. Such repetitions, and the fact that the play culminates where it started, make After the Fall a roundelay of sorts, though without Blue Room's whimsy. Miller studies the barriers between men and women through the tormented soul of one man, rather than through 10 characters' flights of fancy.

The playwright's attempt to connect HUAC, Quentin's near-homicidal rage at Maggie, and the Holocaust strains even the flaccid ligaments of surrealism. But the play is so honest and earnest, and this production so perfectly acted and thoughtfully conceived, it's a must-see, even if it is a curio.