Where was Robert Brustein’s better judgment when he sat down to write this ludicrously awful play? Apparently it was completely overcome by his lifelong jealousy-tinged contempt for everything the late Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio stood for in the American theater. The result, “Nobody Dies on Friday,” is so naive — dramatically, intellectually and emotionally — so obvious, so unsubtle that it would make a 17-year-old blush, let alone a usually sophisticated 71-year-old theatrical gadfly like Brustein.
Surely this couldn’t have been written by the same man who founded the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater, who is the New Republic’s drama critic, and whose wondrously imaginative ART production of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” has just been seen at the legendary Chekhov Moscow Art Theater.
There are other ironies. First, “Nobody Dies on Friday” (the title refers to Strasberg’s belief that Saturday’s newspapers ran only short obits) is exactly the sort of clunky realistic family play that, if written by someone else, Brustein the critic would rightly tear to pieces. Second, in their single-minded , passionate beliefs about acting and the theater, Brustein and Strasberg are more alike than different.
Blatantly based, often in an undigested way, on the autobiographical writings of Lee and Paula Strasberg’s two children, Susan and John, Brustein’s play takes place in the family’s Central Park West apartment in New York on the morning, afternoon and evening of Jan. 1, 1960, after one of their famous New Year’s Eve parties. As the familiarly dysfunctional quartet have at one another, Marilyn Monroe, who has been studying acting with Strasberg and his wife, is an unseen presence in an offstage bedroom, her bell and voice constantly demanding attention. Ultimately she overdoses on pills but is saved by Paula. Meanwhile, 18-year-old son John, who feels that he’s been abandoned by his parents because they are so obsessed with Monroe, has a noisy fight with Strasberg. The play ends with John alone center stage as the other three go off to tend to Monroe’s voracious wants and needs.
Theoretically, the play is about the tragic effects of celebrity in this country — Brustein seeing Strasberg and his wife desperately seeking it (and money) via Monroe. But it’s really about Brustein’s contempt for Strasberg. The playwright admits to finding him “a highly overrated cultural icon,” but surely he was a more intelligent and multidimensional man than the monstrously self-centered egotist pictured by Brustein. No wonder the usually reliable Alvin Epstein gives such an unconvincingly belligerent performance as Strasberg, Brustein having given him so many unspeakable lines to cope with and absolutely no subtext or depths to explore.
The 18-year-old John is the drama’s pivot, believably played by Robert Kropf. This may be because he’s also Brustein’s alter ego. When John and Strasberg argue about acting and the theater, it’s as if we’re hearing Brustein and Strasberg arguing. (In fact they never met.)
Given the unbelievability of most of the play, during which facts are trotted out with embarrassing obviousness and the phone is used with even more lack of dramatic sophistication (among the callers are Geraldine Page, Cheryl Crawford, Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller), Annette Miller does a credible job of portraying Paula Strasberg, though she’s never the highly dramatic character portrayed by daughter Susan in her two books. Emma Robertshas the toughest job — the role of Susan has simply not been written.
ART Institute student Rachel Warren is, not surprisingly, unreal as the voice of Monroe, and the device of keeping M.M. offstage just doesn’t work. David Wheeler’s direction is never more than rudimentary.
The setting of Michael Griggs’ apartment — crammed with books, records and photographs — is true to its Central Park West original.
At one point in “Nobody Dies on Friday” Strasberg shouts at his emotionally needy young son, “You’re nothing but a nobody.” The same could be said of this play.