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The Archbishop's Ceiling

Gregory Mosher's production of Arthur Miller's little-known play about political powerlessness is both visually and psychologically stunning. logo
Thomas G. Waites and Bruce McCarty
in The Archbishop's Ceiling
(© Richard Termine)
Does a play have to be a full realization of the author's intention to be considered successful? If the answer is yes, there isn't enough reason to see Gregory Mosher's production of The Archbishop's Ceiling, Arthur Miller's little-known work about the powerful powerlessness of writers in an unnamed Central European country during the 1970s. If the answer is no -- if enough of the elements are emotionally and intellectually stimulating -- then theatergoers who take art and politics seriously must attend the visually and psychologically stunning Westport Country Playhouse production.

What are the problems with the play? Is it that the late playwright spent too much time on trimmable exposition? Is there too much damn talk? Are the discussions convoluted in their depiction of repression in a land that's probably Czechoslovakia? Does the intensifying suspense abate for even more gab at the beginning of the second act? Does the five-character play include one character whose presence seems increasingly superfluous? Weighed against the pluses, these drawbacks register as fairly inconsequential.

Moreover, none of the above has bothered Mosher as he extracts theatrical excitement from Miller's impassioned text. American writer Adrian Wallach (Bruce McCarty) who might be modeled after Philip Roth but could also be a fictionalized version of Miller himself -- has come to this unspecified Prague to restart a novel he's almost abandoned. After chatting up Maya (Sara Surrey), the sexy and secretive woman who's supposedly inspired the blocked work, Adrian finds himself in the midst of intrigue surrounding outspoken novelist Sigmund (Thomas G. Waites) and well-positioned novelist Marcus (David Rasche), whose home they're all occupying.

Marcus has a blonde Dane, Irina (Heather Kenzie) on his arm, which gives him the air of a continental Hugh Hefner. It's an image further confirmed by a rumor that Marcus knows his rooms are bugged and deliberately throws orgies to which foreign writers with whom he's chummy are invited and listened in on. The microphones are believed to be hidden in the elaborately-painted ceiling (hence Miller's title), and the characters must adjust --or not adjust-- their conversations accordingly. The major complication is that a novel Sigmund has spent five years composing has been taken from his home by the police. The ostensible suspense has to do with the purloined work being used as a tactic to get Sigmund to flee the country he loves but famously criticizes.

Miller has claimed he's examining the power of the individual in contrast to the power government exercises over the individual. And he is definitely doing that, but he's also illustrating -- by what may not be an extreme example -- how individuals react when they suspect their freedom of expression is restricted. Miller wants us ruminating over the challenge of differentiating between what people think they should be saying and what they actually believe. Watching the focal foursome attempt to communicate meaningfully is Miller's real suspense. By final black-out, it's still unresolved, which is Miller's triumph and the audience's burden to bear. Some of the predicament is summed up in Sigmund's uneasy laugh line: "We must lie. It's our only freedom."

Everything about this production is first-rate, and if Alexander Dodge's set is mentioned before the cast, that's only fitting. Aside from the beauty of the ceiling that Dodge has provided -- Miller's stage directions require a representation of the four winds -- the designer has extended the ceiling over the first few rows of the orchestra to remind patrons that they, too, could be bugged under today's shifty regulations. Clifton Taylor lights the ceiling sometime glowingly, sometime ominously.

The cast is super. McCarty gives a restless performance as Adrian. Meanwhile, Waites' white-haired Sigmund is properly driven, and Rasche's Marcus is properly, suavely mysterious. Surrey is sexy and enigmatic, while in the underwritten role of jazz-loving Irina, Kenzie is spritely.

Regularly lionized in England, Miller often maintained he hadn't an American critic in his corner. Although many of his later plays deserved the tepid response they elicited, he frequently behaved as if he were a prophet without honor in his own country. This production suggests the playwright was at least partially right on that score.

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