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Peter Krause and Carla Gugino in After the Fall
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Someone associated with the revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre has a sense of humor. The first things heard as the show begins are the letters "TWA." The reason for the airline reference is that Miller's 1964 play, an ambitious extension of his career-long structure experimentation, has been transferred by director Michael Mayer and set designer Richard Hoover to Eero Saarinen's now-departed TWA terminal at JFK (still called Idlewild when the play was written). Everything taking place in protagonist Quentin's mind -- an amorphous, cavernous locale in Elia Kazan's original production -- now unfolds on the antiseptic levels of the Saarinen interior, with passengers dressed by Michael Krass in smart '50s and '60s travel wear quietly carting valises about.

The plane-terminal concept becomes a less amusing metaphor as Quentin (Peter Krause) reviews his life while awaiting the deplaning of his new love, Holga (Vivienne Benesch). Terminals, you see, shut down when the days' flights are completed. By the wee hours of the morning, they're chillingly empty -- and so, forty years on, is Miller's play, which has always seemed somehow deficient. Its initial interest for spectators was the character Maggie, here played by Carla Gugino (and played by Barbara Loden in 1964). When Miller wrote After the Fall, he was only a few years out of his marriage to the subsequently deceased Marilyn Monroe. Despite his denials, the sprawling melodrama was assumed to be inspired by his ruminations on their failed relationship.

Miller has said of his intentions, "The way I see life is that there are no public issues. They are all private issues...We have gotten divided...The attempt in After the Fall was to unify both worlds, to make them one, to make an embrace that would touch the concentration camp, the Un-American Activities committee, a sexual relationship, a marital relationship, all in one embrace, because that's really the way it is."

But there's many a slip between attempt and realization. Throughout the piece, which has been edited for this outing, the playwright repeatedly contemplates the concentration camp to which Holga takes him for a serious post World War II date. (Elaine J. McCarthy's projections of a camp in sinister silhouette fill the set's back wall.) Miller conjures HUAC recollections through good friend and fellow traveler Lou (Mark Nelson), who refuses to name names before the HUAC interrogators and suffers for his convictions. He also recalls Mickey (Jonathan Walker), who justifies his naming names and doesn't suffer. These blasts from erstwhile lawyer Quentin's political past continually flicker and fade but not as often as those of his mother (Candy Buckley), father (Dan Ziskie), brother Dan (Ken Marks), wife Louise (Jessica Hecht), and Maggie, whose slow disintegration as a result of low self-esteem fill most of the second act.

What Miller puts on stage is comparable to prose literature's stream of consciousness -- or maybe, in the circumstances, jet stream of consciousness. These are Quentin's thoughts as he goes about trying to explain himself to himself and hoping to figure out why he can't seem to love, why the women with whom he mates tell him that he gives them nothing. He wants to know why and how, as the play's title suggests, he's lost his innocence and is unable to recapture a sense of it from a personal history over which he has no control. The stricken Quentin's memories circulate without logical progression and at repetitive length; they even appear to gang up on him. For instance, in the scene where he finally makes love to the mercurial Maggie, director Mayer and dramatist Miller play out the old observation that every conjugal bed is populated by at least six people. The sequence is an orgiastic vortex of Quentin, Maggie, Louise, and Quentin's grasping father, mother -- and, oh, brother. ("Oh, brother!" is right.)

Whether or not Maggie is meant to be Marilyn Monroe, Miller's jumpy script only truly comes alive when either Maggie or Louise is present. The loopy bombshell Maggie may not be Monroe but she's someone whom Miller knows well; he catches the fiery nature of her constant mood changes. A redhead in this trimmed version, Maggie has a deep-seated uncertainty that's initially charming, but when she begins to regard Quentin as a combination cheat/flunky, her fears make her monstrous. Louise's unhappiness is the recognizable condition of a well-meaning and intelligent but conflicted woman.

As for Quentin, he's a cipher. What he's pursuing remains vague. His search has no thrust, and when he finally reaches a resolution that won't be explained here, it seems arbitrary. The play feels like the work of a man who set out to examine himself but, flinching the closer he came to painful revelations, eventually fell back on whatever platitudes could get him off his own hook. Maybe After the Fall isn't really about Marilyn Monroe or about Miller's first wife or third wife, Inge Morath, because he couldn't bring himself to unswervingly confront his deepest feelings and intimations about any of these women.

Vivienne Benesch, Jessica Hecht, Peter Krause, Carla Gugino,
and Candy Buckley in After the Fall
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sad to report, the generic angst of the play's hero isn't mitigated by the performance of Peter Krause. The actor is on hiatus from Six Feet Under, where he's been making a memorable character of Nate, a man every bit as confused by his life and loves as Quentin is. With his hair cut short and wearing an outfit that makes him look like Sloan Wilson's man in the grey flannel suit or, better yet, like Dan Quayle trying to spell, Krause is blandness personified. As directed without much amperage by Mayer, he goes through the play with a slightly befuddled expression on his handsome, strong-jawed face, gesturing with both arms as if imploring the universe for an epistemological handout.

Because Maggie is the work's plum assignment and because Carla Gugino has no trouble understanding this, the actress steals the show no less thoroughly than Marilyn Monroe stole The Prince and the Showgirl from Laurence Olivier. Plump and nubile, she makes Maggie's appealing and appalling facets completely believable and keeps them integrated. As Louise, Jessica Hecht gives perhaps the finest performance of a career that has already gone from fine to finer; she has threaded Louise's simmering discontent into her dialogue as if weaving a subtle tapestry. In the lesser and less well rounded roles, Candy Buckley as Quentin's mother, Vivienne Benesch as the understanding Holga, and Mark Nelson as the doomed, compromised Lou earn grateful nods.

Miller and director Mayer evidently collaborated on the TWA public announcements added to the play. (The sound design is by Dan Moses Schreier, the lighting design by Donald Holder.) The many cuts -- in particular, the "Hello, God, it's good to see you again" salutation that jejeunely began the 1964 version -- were reportedly made with Miller's approval. All segments involving Maggie and Louise have wisely been left intact. But none of the additions or subtractions has made a difference in terms of After the Fall's basic drawback, least of all the more grounded setting. Unlike Monroe, whose best performances were beguilingly natural, Miller pretentiously tries to make this play seem like it amounts to a lot more than it actually does.

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