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A CurtainUp Review

Mr. Peter's Connection

"What's the subject?"

That's the question that puzzles Harry Peters the title character of Arthur Miller's new play. It's also a question that's likely to puzzle audiences who've bought every available ticket to see the new play by the man widely acclaimed as America's leading playwright with an internationally praised hot young Irish director, Garry Hynes, at the helm.

Actually it isn't all that complicated. That's provided you can get into the rhythm of some of the Pinteresque dialogue and accept that the characters you will meet are in the main player's head. The subject, in a nutshell, is one man's stopover on his final journey in order to find a meaningful connection between the pleasures and regrets of his past and the alienation he feels in the present.

Mr. Peters played by the one and only Columbo, Peter Falk, was once a glamorous fly boy for Pan Am in the days when PanAm wasn't an airline but "a calling, a knighthood." He who flew "into 1000 gorgeous sunsets" and bedded 18 Rockettes in 30 days, (and marrying one of them), is now concerned with "paddling my canoe with a tennis racket." As he is uncomfortable in his squeaky new shoes, he is also a frail and uncomfortable survivor in a world speaking a language in which he can find no subject. Oh, he looks pretty fit in a tweed coat and hat, (not quite as crumpled as his Columbo raincoat), but as he quickly explains "I'm older than everyone I ever knew . . .all my dogs are dead. . .half a dozen cats, parakeet. . .all gone. . .probably every woman I ever slept with too except my wife."

It is to meet his wife that he's come to a gloomy and all but abandoned nightclub which she apparently wants them to buy. But while Harry is not particularly interested in the club, he knows it's near a shoe store that carries the extra narrow size he wears. It's after he's bought his new shoes that we meet him, gingerly and squeakily testing them out, (at first glance they look like white shoes with a pair of those pull-on galoshes). In the beginning there are only two other people on stage, an omniprescent and apparently homeless squatter (Erica Bradshaw) who acts as occasional commentator and Calvin (Jeff Weiss), the proprietor who's eager to make a deal. Calvin is just off-beat enough to make a little alarm bell go off every time Peters remarks that he seems to resemble a lot of other people (most particularly, his competitive dead brother). When Adele at one point dons a nurse's cap it's clear that she too is a fantasy connection to Mr. Peter's final journey..

As the connection between Peter Falk's Mr. Peters and his rumpled and squinty-eyed Columbo persona is much in evidence (and why not since it serves him quite well), so audiences won't miss the connection between some of the characters and people in the playwright's life (despite denials by both Miller and Ms. Hynes). Cathy Mae (Kris Carr), a tragic and ghostly vision in sheer white who more than any other character seems to rouse Mr. Peters from his "terminal indifference", is the most easily recognizable, (Miller's second wife, Marilyn Monroe). When Cathy Mae makes her second appearance, and Mr. Peters takes her immobile body into his arms for a fleeting dance to the accompaniment of "It Was Just One Of Those Things" and flickering lights, darned if it doesn't take you as well as Peters back to another time and place. Alas, the dancing Peters' cry "The flat broad belly, the spring of thighs, how the fire flares up just before it dies!" is Arthur Miller in one of his more melodramatic moments of poetic excess. Fortunately, the play is full of more memorable language.

Also wrested from Harry Peter's head and onto the stage is the manic shoe store proprietor (Daniel Oreskes) searching for his missing wife, (Cathy Mae), and two "new age" emissaries -- a young pregnant girl Rose (Tari Signor) who might be Mr. Peter's lost daughter and her musician-composer friend Leonard (Alan Moses) whose anxiety about his laundry is fraught with symbolic anxiety. Anne Jackson as Peters' wife bounces in last -- brisk and bright and sharp -- from pillbox hat to high-heeled shoes (shades of Mr. Miller's current and accomplished wife, photographer Inge Morath?). But Charlotte's briskness fails to pull Mr. Peters' out of his somnolent daze and she quickly withdraws to the long banquette -- (a dark and dreary red in sharp contrast to Jackson's bright orange-red outfit) -- alongside, but apart from and unconnected to the other ghost characters. The movement to that banquette turns the nightclub itself into yet another subject, a metaphor for times past and a gateway to oblivion?

Don't expect a big bang of sumup insights when Mr. Peters has finished rummaging through the memory box of his mind. This is after all not one of Mr. Miller's well-made plays but a serio-comic fantasia. There is a conclusion of sorts, or, as Mr. Peters would have it, a subject. I won't tell you what it is or try to explain it, but you'll hardly be alone if you leave the theater more than a little muddled and less than fully satisfied.

While Harry Peters who is no longer capable of being moved by anything and has a deep down feeling of always seeming "on the verge of tears" is not exactly a poster boy for the golden years, Peter Falk does makes the most of the many quotable laugh lines Mr. Miller provides. He also has the benefit of excellent support by the rest of the cast. Jeff Weiss is particularly strong as the enigmatic club proprietor, as is Anne Jackson in her brief and almost last-minute appearance. The lovely Tari Signor blossoms true to the name of the character she portrays.

As for Ms. Hynes' direction, it's not on a par with her work in Beauty Queen of Leenane, but then this is a foreign milieu to which she has yet to grow accustomed. By once again enlisting Leenane's set designer Francis O'Connor, she has created such an evocative replica of a seedy nightclub that the much talked about but never seen glories of its powder room somehow rise sharply in our mind's eye. She is also to be commended for tightning what began as two hours with intermission to an intermissionless hour and a half thus downplaying the tendency to have the play's comedic and poetic strengths sound like a long kvetch about "death's twilight."

In the words of Mr. Falk's famous alter ego, "Oh. Just one more thing--"

If Peters isn't the role model you'd chose for your days "in the yellow leaf" just switch connections and think of the playwright's own current journey . Unlike Harry Peters he remains very much a contender. His 82nd year has brought him a life time achievement award, a year as playwright in residence at the Signature, and the embrace of two of the best young directors working in the theater (Ms. Hynes and Michael Mayer who gave the 1950s naturalistic A View From the Bridge, enough distinctive now freshness to propel it from a limited run at the Roundabout to a second opening on Broadway. And so, while the Grim Reaper will eventually catch up with Arthur Miller, as well as Harry Peters . . . to all of of us, Mr. Miller is not sitting in a rocking chair waiting for his arrival but has instead made integral to the subject that's at the basis of every other subject.

For more about Arthur Miller's career and links to plays we've reviewed and pertinent books, check out our Overview of Arthur Miller's Career The Beauty Queen of Leenane review

By Arthur Miller
Directed by Garry Hynes
Starring Peter Falk,
With: (alphabetically) Erica Bradshaw, Kris Carr, Anne Jackson, Alan Mozes, Daniel Oreskes, Tari Signor, Jeff Weiss
Sets: Francis O'Connor
Lighting: Beverly Emmons
Costumes: Teresa Snider-Stein
Sound: Red Ramona
Signature, 555 W. 42d St. (244-7529)
4/28/98-6/210/98; opens 5/17/98
Reviewed 5/18/98 by Elyse Sommer

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©Copyright 1998 Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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