Matthew Modine and Heather Prete in Finishing the Picture

(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Matthew Modine and Heather Prete in Finishing the Picture
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Reno, Nevada, 1960. Kitty, a drug-addled star, has put a motion picture weeks behind schedule and millions over budget. Should the producer pull the plug, thereby destroying the star's career and -- it's implied -- her life? He consults with the director who's nurtured her career, the intuitive cameraman who treasures her luminous skin and "great ass," Kitty's rapacious and interfering acting coaches, her devoted assistant, and her screenwriter husband.

Finishing the Picture, the Arthur Miller world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre through November 7, is inspired by the problematic production of the 1960 film The Misfits, written by Miller for his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe. Miller (Paul in the play) wrote The Misfits as a gift of love for Monroe, even as their marriage deteriorated. Miller is blunt in this new work. When Edna, Kitty's assistant, says "She loves you, Paul," he replies, "But she doesn't like me. I didn't save her; she didn't save me as we promised. No more. Just no more, for both our sakes."

Only momentarily glimpsed in Act I, the Monroe figure, Kitty (dark-haired Heather Prete) is seen in Act II wrapped in a sheet -- and nothing else -- in bed. Nearly comatose, she has no lines, no personality. She is a void to be filled in by others and colored by their relationships to her. Kitty is iconic, a hollow image of something held up by those around her. Is she a commodity? a sex goddess? an artist? a pampered star? Is she terrified and abused, hungry for love but incapable of accepting it? Is she all of the above?

"If I can reach her sense of honor, I believe she will come back and finish the picture," the director says. But how to reach her? Characters try anger, threats, flattery, kindness, appeals to her artistry. The jury still is out at the end of the play. The point is made several times that Kitty needs love, we all need love -- yet, too often, love is the Great Impossibility. In a punch line near the end of the play, Edna says, "All she needs is a little consideration." The audience giggles tentatively, but the characters onstage roar with laughter. Every consideration, every indulgence still might not be enough as good will, the best intentions, and even love drown hopelessly in the bottomless ocean of emotional need.

Director Robert Falls gives Finishing the Picture a well-paced, naturalistic staging without interpretive overlays and with only one large theatrical gesture: the use in Act II of video close-ups, projected in wide-screen format, to suggest Kitty's view of people talking to her. The key role is the producer, Phillip -- arguably more of a stand-in for Miller than Paul -- played by Stacy Keach as a decent, smart, self-made man. No stranger to personal tragedy, Phillip earnestly seeks to make the right decision. He's paired with the self-effacing personal assistant, Edna (the sympathetic Frances Fisher). Fog-voiced Harris Yulin is the film's wise director, who's forceful without being an enforcer. Matthew Modine, tall and bespectacled as Miller himself is , plays the undeveloped role of Paul, who confesses his anger with Kitty but does little else. (In a memorable moment of confrontation, Kitty screams and shrinks from Paul like the Bride of Frankenstein from the Monster). Scott Glenn is the vulgar, no-nonsense, veteran cameraman who's just there to work.

Harris Yulin, Scott Glenn, and Stacy Keach in Finishing the Picture
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Harris Yulin, Scott Glenn, and Stacy Keach
in Finishing the Picture
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Quickly sketched as believable types rather than fully fleshed out, these characters are dedicated filmmakers anxious to finish the picture. Not so Kitty's New York acting coaches concerned with their perqs, per diems, and personal reputations. Just as Wagner savaged music critic Eduard Hanslick in Die Meistersinger, so Miller here settles scores -- after 45 years -- with Lee and Paula Strasberg, Monroe's gurus at the Actors Studio. Presented here as Jerome and Flora Fassinger, they are artistic frauds portrayed with wry, waspish understatement by Stephen Lang (looking like Freud in a white goatee and owlish glasses) and Linda Lavin. Designer Martin Pakledinaz costumes Jerome in an oversized cowboy hat and red Western boots to complete the buffoonery.

Does Miller at 89 still have the right stuff? Yes, depending on what stuff you have in mind. He's written a crisp two hours of characteristically intelligent dialogue, if occasionally stagy and speechy (also characteristic), leavened with some humor and satire. Those seeking meaty drama in the manner of Death of a Salesman or The Crucible will be disappointed. Rather, Finishing the Picture is an intimate relationship drama -- a play of talk and mood, not sweep and action. It's an examination rather than a conclusion; indeed, it has a weak denouement. Some will find the work unengaging and lacking in emotional satisfaction. Miller still has craft but seems past passion here, viewing things with detachment.

The title of Finishing the Picture refers not only to the movie within the play but also perhaps to Miller himself completing his theatrical work -- or, at least, completing the public portrait of himself and Monroe that he began with After the Fall in 1964. If this new play is his valedictory, it's a wistful one concerned with human frailty and the challenges of being compassionate.