Miller's tale

A new play about Marilyn Monroe is causing a stir in Chicago - not least because it has been written by her ex-husband

In his 60 years as a playwright, Arthur Miller surely has written better plays than Finishing the Picture; but in one special area, this new, second-rank work by the author of such prime American dramas as Death of a Salesman, The Price and The Crucible undoubtedly holds absolute sway. In its first run here at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago, it is stirring up more speculation, gossip and rampant curiosity than any Miller play has received in years.

Neither a disaster nor a triumph, the production, which opened earlier this month, has been greeted with wildly mixed reviews from local and national critics, their assessments ranging from flat-out raves to unvarnished pans. Business at the box office, meanwhile, is brisk, and many of those who have seen the play feel compelled to talk about it, to rehash and review it on their own.

The reason for all this ado is simple: the play is Arthur Miller writing about Marilyn Monroe. Forty-two years after her death at 36, and 43 years after her five-year marriage to Miller ended in divorce, the myth of Marilyn remains an endlessly fascinating subject in American culture. For Miller in particular his relationship with the screen's quintessential love goddess was crucial. Loth to talk about it in public, he has nonetheless dealt with it twice in his plays.

He first explored its implications 40 years ago in After the Fall, which concerned, among other things, the disastrous marriage of Quentin, a fortyish attorney, and Maggie, a self-destructive singer terminally addled by drugs and alcohol.

Finishing the Picture, his latest and probably last foray into that dark territory, takes place in Reno, Nevada, in 1960 during the filming of a motion picture that stars an unstable, deeply troubled actress (named simply Kitty) whose inability to show up for work has put the over-budget, over-schedule film project in jeopardy. In this time of crisis, various characters associated with the movie (but none of its actors) gather in a Reno hotel suite (sleekly designed in 1950s desert-modern style by Thomas Lynch) to see if they can rouse the actress from her druggy stupor and get her in shape to go on with the picture.

These include Derek Clemson (portrayed by Harris Yulin), the flamboyant director; Paul (Matthew Modine), the actress's confused, despairing screenwriter husband; and Jerome and Flora Fassinger (Stephen Lang and Linda Lavin) two characters who wield tremendous influence on Kitty, Jerome as head of the prominent acting studio she has attended; and Flora, slavishly devoted to her husband, as the star's ever-present acting coach.

The parallels between the play's characters and situation and the events surrounding the making of the 1961 movie The Misfits, which starred Monroe, with a script by Miller and direction by John Huston, are unavoidable. And the Fassingers, it is equally obvious, are directly modelled on the real-life Lee Strasberg, imperious head of the Actors Studio, and his wife Paula, both of whom were tightly bound with Monroe.

Others meeting for the crisis conference are Phillip Ochsner (Stacy Keach), a former trucking firm executive turned movie producer who has the coolest head in this motley bunch; Edna Meyers (Frances Fisher), Kitty's shy, extremely protective secretary with whom Ochsner has started a mild affair, and Terry Case, the movie's earthy, wise-cracking cinematographer.

Kitty herself (a brunette instead of a blonde, played by Heather Prete) is also on hand, but she is seen only fleetingly, in the nude, in the first act as an exhausted wraith who wanders into Ochsner's suite and in the second as a listless figure lying in the gloom of a bedroom while her assembled visitors try to get her up and moving.

Kitty is the character on whom the play turns, but Miller has kept her silent and mysterious, at a distance, using her as a mirror or litmus paper in which the speaking characters reveal themselves. This is a daring choice and, in a stroke of great theatrical invention by director Robert Falls in the second act, it has its rewards. As Ochsner, Clemson, Paul and the Fassingers all troop up to Kitty's bed to plead with and manipulate her, their faces are captured by a hidden camera and projected in giant close-ups on to a skrim curtain at the front.

More video projections - designed by John Boesche as silent, shadowy evocations of Misfits-like landscapes and images - are shown while scenes change. These devices add a slight kick to a mostly inert first act, in which the actors stand and deliver long stretches of explanation and exposition. Keach, as the decent, sane producer, and Yulin, fitted out in a Hustonesque safari jacket and speaking in gravelly voice, manfully carry the plot forward, while Glenn, adapting a strange, arm-swinging gait as he paces the stage, delivers the playwright's zingers on the people and process of movie-making. (He thumpingly asserts, for example, that Kitty's star quality lies in the perfection of her posterior.)

But the play does not really come to life until Lavin walks in, kvetching and proclaiming, swathed in a voluminous black kaftan, lugging an immense tote bag and floridly airing herself with a large palm-leaf fan. Later, when Lang shows up, preening in his newly purchased cowboy dude outfit, these two sharply etched caricatures happily take over the stage. They are the most fully realised and deftly enacted characters in the drama, and they give the proceedings a neat bit of nasty, tabloid fun. Yet they're not total clowns. Miller gives them their dignity, particularly in their devotion to the majesty and mystery of acting.

And Finishing the Picture, while it enjoys these wicked, funny moments, is deadly serious in the Miller mode. It concerns the terrible price of creativity in a tough, greedy world, and it pursues that theme from its very beginning, when the producer first notices the red haze of the forest fires burning out of control in the Los Angeles area. ("The woods are burning," Willy Loman shouts at his time of anguish in Salesman.)

What's missing here is something Miller has never been and never will be able to provide: the character of Arthur Miller. The writer Paul is a furtive and bland character, leaving the hapless Modine, a movie actor making his professional stage debut, with a sadly underwritten role. He does have one blistering scene in the second act, when he speaks of the love that turned to hatred in his marriage, and when he rips the bedsheet off Kitty and sets her screaming. But he is far less sophisticated and complicated than Miller, and without him weighing in as a strong character, the play loses a lot of heft.

What happens to Finishing the Picture after it ends its extended run at the Goodman is still up in the air. It certainly has caused a mighty fuss in its performances at Chicago's largest resident theatre, and its starry cast, sparked by Lavin's performance, combined with the audience awareness of the Miller-Monroe links, might propel it to the Broadway production it was clearly set up to be. But with an unimpressive, dismissive review from the New York Times already filed, producer David Richenthal, whose collaboration with Falls has included profitable revivals of Death of a Salesman (1999) and Long Day's Journey into Night, (2003), must face the task of raising the money for the transfer of this new, flawed play to an unforgiving Broadway.

For his part, Miller, who turned 89 in October, appears content with his work. Steadfastly denying autobiographical connections with his play and insisting that its characters stem only from his imagination, he seems finished with his writing now that it has hit the stage. Falls, the Goodman theatre's artistic director, says: "Arthur was scared to death of the video images at first, but once he saw them, bless his heart, he went with it all the way." Otherwise, Miller, never one to go in for extensive rewrites, has left his script relatively untouched.

Whether the play moves to Broadway or not, it is sure to have future productions, partly because of its subject matter, partly because, despite its longeurs, it still displays signs of Miller's keen stagecraft.

And by no means is it the end of the line for major Miller productions. Already Richenthal is planning a May remounting for London of the acclaimed 1999 Salesman, which originated at the Goodman, with Brian Dennehy in the title role under Falls's direction.

· Richard Christiansen is the retired chief critic of the Chicago Tribune and author of the forthcoming book, A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago

· Finishing the Picture is at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, until November 7. Box office: 00 1 312-443-5151

Richard Christiansen

The GuardianTramp

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