New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Connecticut Theater

"The Archbishop’s Ceiling”
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport

Should a writer know when to quit, when to stop churning out plays? Often the playwrights, even the best ones, do not know—or choose not to know. So it would seem with the great Arthur Miller.

“The Archbishop’s Ceiling” is a drama which premiered in 1977, well after the advent of the strong Miller plays of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Dealing with the nature of power—relationships between the powerless and the empowered--“Archbishop” takes on a familiar Miller theme. But it is a theme he handled more effectively, with far greater dramatic effect, in his 1953 drama “The Crucible.”

“Archbishop,” now at the Westport Country Playhouse, reflects an older Miller, given to convoluted, obscure talk rather than action. Specifically, the play examines the dynamics between an oppressive government and its writers/intellectuals/artists. As Miller rambles on, it takes some time to realize what is happening. Three writers (one American, two Czechs) hold forth on questions of artistic freedom, with two attractive women on hand, ostensibly to add sexual excitement to the scene. The non-story unfolds in an unnamed European capital--very likely Communist Prague in the late ‘70s. Meeting in one writer’s luxurious apartment (which may or may not be bugged), the characters gradually emerge with their conflicting viewpoints: Adrian, the American, is generous, forthright, uncomplicated, naïve, Marcus is a suave worldly Czech who has compromised with the Communist regime, and Sigmund is the openly critical Czech who stubbornly adheres to his standards. The women are Maya, a Czech who has been lover to the three men, and Irina, a Danish girl brought in for no reason whatsoever. (But Irina generates the play’s best line, as one man says of her, “That’s a nice piece of Danish.”)

Ultimately we learn that the government has confiscated Sigmund’s manuscript—threatening him with banishment or worse. His American friend Adrian desperately urges Sigmund to leave, but Sigmund will have none of it. Thus the arguments go round and round like a record repeating itself. At the close, the manuscript is returned, and Sigmund, it seems, is safe—for the time being. A story which ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

So much for text. The production itself, on the other hand, is thoroughly professional, with actors Bruce McCarty, Sara Surrey, David Rasche, Heather Kenzie, and Thomas G. Waites interacting well under the astute direction of Gregory Mosher. McCarty is particularly strong and believable as the brash American, a nice contrast to the more complex Europeans. Unfortunately these same Europeans, under Mosher’s direction, speak in varied accents—or no accent. Mosher should have chosen one route or the other—either carefully researched accents or no accent at all.

In spite of this, performances are competent, and certainly above reproach is Alexander Dodge’s set, particularly its overhead design. Marcus’s apartment had once belonged to an archbishop who had a magnificent mural (of angels and devils) painted on his ceiling. The ceiling (possibly bugged) plays a key role and gives the play its title. It is this mural as conceived by Dodge which reaches out over the audience, drawing the viewers into the room. Would that the characters and their endless discussions had had the same mesmerizing effect!

However well this piece has been mounted, it is hardly worth the effort. The story goes no place, has no build-up, and offers no solutions. Miller has merely used this format to air his views, to write a political tract. It is an exercise he might well have handled in an essay.

-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 1, 2006

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