After the Fall by Arthur Miller. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set design by Richard Hoover. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy. Hair/wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Peter Krause, Carla Gugino, Jessica Hecht, Vivienne Benesch, Candy Buckley, Roxanna Hope, Kathleen McNenny, Ken Marks, Mark Nelson, Baylen Thomas, Jonathan Walker, Dan Ziskie, Chris Bowers, Lisa Louttit, James O'Toole.
Those who feared changing the name of the Selwyn Theatre to the American Airlines Theatre may have just had their worries realized, if not quite in the way they expected. The Roundabout-owned theater is now housing a revival of Arthur Miller's 1964 play After the Fall, which director Michael Mayer has chosen to set in an airport.
It's not that Richard Hoover's spic-and-span grey set depicting Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in 1962 draws particular attention to American Airlines, but that it draws attention to itself time and time again. Even worse, it's at the expense of most of what else happens onstage; sure, a couple of scenes are set at an airport, but most are recollections, fragments of memory that look plain silly when set against this particular backdrop, but would make sense played out on the blank canvas of a man's mind.
That man is Quentin (played by Peter Krause), ostensibly Miller's stand-in, who spends most of the time addressing the audience directly, taking them on a stream-of-consciousness journey through some formative events in his life. Of central importance to him are, of course, women, and three are immediately conspicuous: his prospective new love, Holga (Vivienne Benesch), whom he's come to the airport to meet; his mother (Candy Buckley); and his first wife, Louise (Jessica Hecht).
Though Miller's script and lighting designer Donald Holder try to convince you otherwise, the discrepancy between what you're seeing onstage and the very internal, non-setting-specific story being enacted by the performers is jarring. It's enough to leave you sitting in the audience waiting, like passengers at so many airports, for something - anything - to take off. And it's not until near the end of the first act, when Carla Gugino becomes prominent, that the show takes flight.
She plays the fourth important woman in Quentin's life, Maggie, initially a secretary at the law firm at which he works. Her hair is a devilish red, precociously at odds with her otherwise ordinary appearance (costume designer Michael Krass has outfitted her in a simple yellow frock), but it's obvious from Maggie's first moments onstage that she radiates so much charisma and sex appeal that she's destined to become a star. (Watching Gugino's performance, one can't help but think the same about her.)
It should be noted that Gugino bears little physical resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, to whom Miller was once married, and on whom Maggie was clearly modeled. Gugino, instead, finds Monroe's essence: the hard-edged fragility of a woman both incredibly sexy and dangerously self-destructive. Maggie can inspire love in others as easily as she can deny it to herself, and her every word aches not only with longing, but the belief that she'll get what she wants. When she shatters into a million pieces, driven to the brink of hopelessness by alcohol, pills, and a corrosive self image, she takes your heart with her.
It's easy enough to see how Quentin's life could be thrown into turmoil because of her - he leaves Louise for Maggie, then frets about falling in love again after her death - but it's far more difficult to care for Quentin himself. Krause has firmly established himself on television in shows like Sports Night and Six Feet Under giving minutely nuanced performances that tap into darker and baser human emotions. The idea is right - this character, too, is not emotionally open - but the energy is wrong; Quentin is confused and lost, but ultimately optimistic, hopeful, and capable of carrying on.
Here, though, Krause thrives solely on detached annoyance and anger, becoming very one-note (and quickly tiring) onstage. His voice, too, ideal for the close perspective of the screen, lacks the palette of colors necessary to communicate complex emotions (and lengthy speeches) in a Broadway house. Krause also fails to make the vital connections needed to bring Quentin's character to believable life; the stock market crash of 1929, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the German concentration camps are all vital in his development, yet are never made relevant here. Everything seems to burst onto the stage - and thus Quentin's memory - haphazardly.
That's one of the difficulties with the play itself, and it takes a strong group of actors, all on the same page, to make it work. Without a strong Quentin (the original was Jason Robards), everyone else has an uphill climb. That's the case here, though everyone else is generally strong. Buckley never really finds her stride and almost makes Quentin's mother overbearing to the point of emptiness, but Hecht and Benesch really sink their teeth into their roles, and give performances of admirable strength. Mark Nelson (as Quentin's friend Lou, a reformed Communist) and Jonathan Walker (who plans to inform on Lou to the HUAC) also give energetic, textured performances.
Everyone, however, must still contend with Mayer's unwieldy concept, portraying other passengers at Idlewild, listening to announcements over the loudspeakers (the sound design is by Dan Moses Schreier), dashing awkwardly offstage for their departures, or even reacting to Quentin as he aimlessly wanders and talks to himself. An airport could certainly be an apt metaphor for life, with new possibilities always arriving and old failures being left behind, and Quentin's story is unquestionably one about moving on.
But After the Fall doesn't need the setting Mayer has thrust upon it; it's an imperfect play, yes, but one that can stand on its own when given the chance. Here it's never allowed that opportunity, and Mayer's concept detracts from the story it's supposed to serve. At least the zesty Gugino is on hand to give a performance of such life-affirming, of-the-moment verve that you're able to stave off the boredom and disinterest that, without her, would almost certainly be terminal.