Robert Brustein's new play, "Nobody Dies on Friday", is a standard American small cast naturalistic family drama of confrontation and information, the sort of script that reigned supreme on the Broadway stage in the fifties. Not at all what one would expect to see on the American Repertory Theatre's main stage among the Eurotrashed classics and the early twentieth century Modernist Greats. However, "Nobody", with designer Michael Griggs' detailed box set depicting a Bohemian living room in an apartment overlooking Central Park with twenty foot floor to ceiling bookcases crammed with books and records, big stereo, framed photos of celebrities of the stage and screen; and director David Wheeler's splendid quartet of actors demonstrating the kind of Actor's Studio moment to moment psychological investment implied by these conventional circumstances, looks quite at home tucked behind the nineteenth century proscenium of the Hasty Pudding Theatre, where the ART rather perversely produces its New Stages series.
The play, like a thousand other plays and much of what appears on television, features an upwardly mobile family of second generation Jewish immigrants dealing with the stress their devotion to a particular version of the American Dream puts on their relationships. John Strasberg, the college dropout son of the family, is asleep on the sofa amidst the debris of last nights fabulous -- and functional -- New Year's Eve party. Young John (Robert Kropf) is dispossessed, bitter, resentful; deprived of his filial rights and locked in oedipal struggle with the Great Man with Feet of Clay, his father Lee (Alvin Epstein). His acting coach mother Paula (Annette Miller), who has given up her own acting career to care for Lee's children and practice Lee's teaching Method and contribute to Lee's success, tempers her personal and professional support of the children to accommodate Lee's goals. Daughter Susan (Emma Roberts) has a budding career in film, and wants good advice in the worst way -- but she can't trust her parents to give it to her. They are the champions of Truth in theory, but in practice they swing from flattery to belittlement on the basis of their own unexamined needs. Lee's greatest need -- and by wifely accommodation, Paula's -- is for the Strasberg name and Lee's personal version of the Stanislavsky system, which he calls the Method, to be famous and respected. In an off-stage bedroom, passed out from booze and pills and newly separated from her playwright husband Arthur Miller, lies a possible key to fame and artistic immortality: Strasberg protégée Marilyn Monroe is already the biggest celebrity in America, "more famous than Jesus Christ". She is a sex goddess, the creator and performer of a fantastically successful comic persona -- but Lee and his Method will transform her into a Great Emotional Actress, an Eleanora Duse. Marilyn's apotheosis will be Lee's, too -- her divine charisma will lift them both to Parnassus. Marilyn drifts in and out of consciousness, floating on pills and champagne, ringing a little bell to summon one or another of the Strasberg to minister to her. Lee, disciple of artistic Truth, is only too eager to do whatever Marilyn asks and say whatever Marilyn wants to hear -- and to deny that this isn't Truth, but crass manipulation.
A student from the ART Institute plays Marilyn's off-stage voice -- and this is a ghastly mistake. Structurally, the bell alone would work better, allowing the Strausberg family response and the audience's imagination to supply the mythic presence. Practically, the student hasn't the chops to "do" Marilyn. It may be that when she wasn't "on", Monroe the movie star did have a shallow, empty, characterless voice. Certainly she was accused of vocal inadequacy for the kind of classical stage work she aspired to. But the "Marilyn" voice that was her artistic creation, breathy and drenched in wonder and warmth and vulnerability, was an instrument perfected to convey a certain range of emotion with the greatest effectiveness, and is unmistakable. It is etched on our collective memory, through a thousand drag acts as well as the through the films Monroe made. Every time the not-marilyn student's voice appears in the play, suspension of disbelief vanishes.
Susan and John Strasberg wrote memoirs that Brustein has used as source material. Susan testifies to her own fascination with Marilyn, in spite of their rivalry as actresses and as objects of Lee's patriarchal attention and nurture. Even so, Susan the character is strangely colorless, her sensitivity and self doubt essentially passive. Emma Roberts suffers well as Susan, but is allowed little of the verve and charm and intelligence she showed as Wendy in last month's "Peter Pan and.." The other three performances are more satisfying, studded as they are with the cliched mannerisms of the Method which have so dominated stage, screen, and television in our time. Not that I mean to imply that these mannerisms constitute bad acting. Alvin Epstein and Annette Miller and Robert Kropf quote Lee Strausberg in "The Godfather" and Stella Adler in "Awake and Sing" and James Dean in "East of Eden" artistically, as a subtle stylistic echo of the play's thematic material. The acting is lovely: committed, audacious, and truthful. In the case of Kropf, this provides a paradox. The character John is burdened with a wit and wisdom that can only be an author's -- either the middle-aged John Strausberg who wrote the memoirs, or the elder statesman Brustein who uses teenage virgin John as a mouthpiece for theories and opinions. The more convincing actor Kropf is, the less he's believable as a troubled kid hungry for his Dad's approval. Kropf is very convincing -- James Dean with an IQ of 200-- and the more forcefully he expresses the character's thoughts and feelings, the more obvious it is that they don't matter. In the world of the play John does nothing but kvetch. Kvetching turns out to BE the play -- sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Brustein's play, while affording the actors some meaty morsels of dysfunction to chew on, and flashes of wit and insightful insult with which to cue audience laughter, is a very ordinary journeyman effort, closely related to the Playwriting 101 exercise that has a would-be author assigned to write a scene wherein his own special villain, the person who who best represents what he fears and despises in human nature, is at his mercy. But the play is remarkable in two ways. First, it is an example of precisely the celebrity mongering the script purports to condemn. It is being produced because it is written by a brand name Yale/Harvard/New Republic BMOC, and people are coming to fill the seats at the Hasty Pudding because they are curious about what Bob Brustein is up to. The media-- including the New York Times -- are publicizing the production because it is about Marilyn Monroe, Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio; and every other speech serves as an excuse to drop the names of famous movie stars. Change all those household names, and this turkey would still be in the slush pile.
Second, the play is a lesson in humility for critics. Clearly, if after
50 years of haranguing playwrights an eminent critic sits down and writes
exactly the sort of pointless self-indulgent domestic melodrama that he
has consistently panned, intelligence, education, experience and refined
taste are useless when it comes to dealing with the Muse. That divine
Lady may have cursed Brustein with the assignment to write a play about
the psychology and ethics of instruction in the theatre for any number
of reasons. Perhaps as punishment for his curmudgeonly
criticism. Maybe as a kind of cosmic performance review of his unique
and privileged position as the head of a world class subsidized producing
theatre and of an acting Institute linked to the most prestigious university
in the United States. Or maybe it's a great karmic opportunity for
Brustein to make artistic discoveries and pass the transmuted results of
his lifetime of experience to his fellows. What ever the test really
is, Brustein has flunked it. It would be easy to flip through
the volumes of the author's collected criticism and lift out a condemnatory
quote to describe his failure in his own terms-- the interesting question
is, why he hasn't done this himself? Brustein revealed in an interview
that what is on the Hasty Pudding stage is draft twelve of "Nobody Dies
on Friday". Draft twelve's pretty bad, but it's better than
the whatever draft it was that was the basis of the staged reading I sat
through at the ART last season. There's no reason draft thirteen
or draft twenty three can't turn into a dynamite play -- a play that
Brustein, of all the successful white men of a certain age in the American
Theatre, is probably most qualified to write. But tinkering with
the script as it is won't do. There's a huge hole at the center of "Nobody
Dies on Friday", a hole that can only be filled by an author's own passion,
imagination, and pain.