Finishing the Picture

Goodman Theatre

“She was ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ and that was what was killing her,” writes Arthur Miller of his late wife in his 1987 memoir Timebends. “One thing only was sure; she must finish the picture.”

The picture to which Miller refers is The Misfits, Monroe’s cinematic swan song. Released in 1961, the movie was Miller’s “gift of words” to Monroe–the screenplay that they hoped would transform her in the public and critical eye from lightweight sex symbol into legitimate dramatic actress. But the filming, on location in the Nevada desert, was notoriously difficult due largely to Monroe’s unreliability. Beset by depression and an escalating addiction to sleeping pills and liquor, Monroe had to be hospitalized during shooting. Instead of forging a bond between Miller and Monroe, the project drove them further apart: their deteriorating marriage became the adversarial professional relationship between a writer obsessed with fidelity to his text and an actress for whom conveying intense emotions was more important than saying the right words. The friction was exacerbated by the on-set presence of Method gurus Lee and Paula Strasberg, Monroe’s acting coaches, with whom Miller unsuccessfully competed for her trust. Monroe divorced Miller shortly before the movie’s debut; a year and a half later she was dead, a victim of suicide or of an accidental overdose–or, some believe, of murder by people who feared she would reveal her affairs with John and Bobby Kennedy.

Miller’s Timebends offers an eloquent and moving–if highly subjective–account of the episode. Now the 89-year-old playwright has turned the Misfits meshuggaas into an existential comedy that could just as easily be titled “Waiting for Marilyn.” In this uneven, ultimately enigmatic world premiere–impressively staged and populated with a fine ensemble of Hollywood and Broadway heavyweights–seven people await the appearance of the Godot-like Kitty, a drug-addled starlet sequestered in her Nevada hotel suite.

Among those waiting is producer Phillip Ochsner, a onetime labor organizer turned trucking executive who’s recently become head of Bedlam Pictures as the result of a corporate merger. An affable working-class guy, he’s awestruck by Kitty, and it’s he who addresses the mystery that defines Monroe as a cultural icon: “How does a woman who looks like that get so depressed?” It’s up to Ochsner whether to temporarily halt production on Kitty’s new film, allowing her a week’s rest, or shut down the project permanently, which would destroy her professionally and personally.

Offering Ochsner their advice on the matter are Derek Clemson, a gruff but loving filmmaker obviously modeled on Misfits director John Huston, and Terry Case, a coarse, crusty cinematographer who declares that the secret to shooting a film is to “get close so you can see the faces, go low so you get the ass.” Hovering on the sidelines is Kitty’s screenwriter husband Paul, a lanky, bespectacled intellectual who at one point declares, “Maybe some day God will punish me for going along with all this idiocy.” Paul is paralyzed by a guilty sense of helplessness, knowing that the more love he offers Kitty the farther he drives his paranoid wife away.

Then there are Jerome and Flora Fassinger, Miller’s bitter caricatures of the Strasbergs. Just as Miller describes Paula Strasberg in Timebends (and as Martin Gottfried reaffirms in his critical biography Arthur Miller: His Life and Work), Flora is wearing a black caftan, a ridiculous outfit in the 105-degree heat. Around her neck dangle gold watches set to different time zones, because, she claims, “the curtain goes up all over the world on our [students] every night.” Jerome, ever the actor, has costumed himself in cowboy garb. While Flora kvetches about not having her own limousine, Jerome tries to motivate his student with anecdotes about legendary actress Eleanora Duse. The only person Kitty truly trusts, Jerome refuses to accept responsibility for her, believing that any failure on her part will reflect badly on him as a teacher.

Kitty herself appears only briefly–totally nude and totally out of it. Her dialogue, such as it is, consists of a few inaudible mumbles and a fit of hysterical screaming. The other characters, meanwhile, have plenty to say: they hold forth about the mystique of the offstage star, about the big bang, about the trivialization of politics in the age of television, and about a forest fire raging 200 miles away. The fire (which Miller also mentions in Timebends) is the play’s big symbol: it represents the ruin human recklessness can cause but also the hope of rebirth–forest fires sweep away deadwood, clearing the way for new growth. The ruin might be the terrible emotional wounds that have brought Kitty to her present fragile state; the rebirth is manifest in the budding romance between producer Ochsner and Kitty’s loyal secretary, Edna Meyers. If Paul represents the younger Miller, who watched in despair as his wife fell apart, Ochsner stands for the mature Miller, finding new life in a new relationship with a woman as plain and practical as Monroe was gorgeous and disturbed.

As in his masterpiece Death of a Salesman and much of his other work, Miller seeks to forge a bond between the personal and the political; Kitty is America, “the envy of the world,” being dragged down by disillusion and despair. (The line that seemed to rouse the audience most was a comment on televised political debates: “The presidency is the prize we give to the actor who does the best impersonation of a president.”) Miller carved his reputation as a great playwright by elevating a nobody–Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman–to a tragic hero whose fate had universal resonance. Here, though, he relies on the fame of his characters’ real-life models to make us interested.

Of course the premiere of a new Arthur Miller play is an international event, and director Robert Falls has assembled a world-class cast. The women are particularly impressive: Frances Fisher, extraordinarily expressive as Edna, and Linda Lavin, perfect as the passive-aggressive shrew Flora. Stephen Lang (artistic director of the Actors Studio, a position once held by Lee Strasberg) makes Jerome a surprisingly sympathetic figure: a teacher torn between pride in his protogee and shame at his inability to help her. Stacy Keach is warmly sympathetic as the perplexed Ochsner; Matthew Modine is charismatic in the thankless one-note role of Paul; Scott Glenn is rangy and raw as the cinematographer more concerned with his investments than his job; and Harris Yulin delivers an amusing impersonation of John Huston, with a hint of an Irish lilt in his raspy voice. As for Heather Prete’s performance as Kitty, the most one can say of her is that she screams well and looks good in her brunette wig (God forbid we should confuse her with Marilyn Monroe).

The real star of the show is John Boesche’s grainy black-and-white footage of the desert (an obvious homage to Russell Metty’s cinematography for The Misfits) and of rolling mountain ranges that morph into the curves of Kitty’s body, projected on set designer Thomas Lynch’s interlocking rectangular screens. The second act is distinguished by a remarkable device: as the actors take turns trying to talk to slumbering Kitty, their faces are projected in huge close-up behind them. In Timebends, Miller recalls Monroe’s costar Clark Gable explaining that the secret to screen acting is the eyes; Falls and the actors prove Gable’s point in this all-important series of monologues, by far the high point of the evening.

The more one knows about Miller, Monroe, and The Misfits, the more interesting Finishing the Picture is likely to be. Viewers unfamiliar with the backstory will probably be left cold because of the play’s fatal flaw: Kitty’s absence. Much time and many words are expended extolling her beauty, her intelligence, her sense of honor, her resilience–and bemoaning the downfall of this extraordinary creature. But without seeing her, except from afar, we have no one to care about. “The woman is glorious,” says one character. “Yes she is. That’s why we’re here,” says another. Surely the same is true of the audience–but Miller resolutely keeps Kitty at a distance, as if to say, “She’s mine, not yours. After all these years, she’s still mine. Go away and leave us alone.”

When: Through 11/17

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-443-3800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.