Arthur Miller’s latest play, “Resurrection Blues,” is set in a banana republic teetering on the brink of anarchy, in which greed has been allowed to fester and infect the body politic. It’s clear from the outset that this unidentified nation is meant as a parody of modern America, and Miller misses no opportunity to indict the moral vacuity of its citizenry in the sternest terms. Clearly, Miller’s outrage hasn’t dissipated. Alas, “Resurrection Blues” is a slight addition to the author’s distinguished oeuvre, an unfocused jeremiad with more bluster than bite.
Billed as a satire along the lines of Swift’s work, “Resurrection Blues” takes inspiration from a New York Times op-ed piece Miller penned in 1992 in which he modestly proposed selling tickets to public executions at Shea Stadium (this, presumably, in addition to Mets home games). The play’s plot turns on the possible execution — by crucifixion, no less — of a revolutionary who fancies himself the Messiah come again. A mendacious American advertising agency, it turns out, has contracted with the country’s dictator, General Felix Barriaux, to simulcast the event — with commercial breaks, naturally.
As the play begins, Barriaux (John Bedford Lloyd) is contemplating the TV offer with his cousin Henri (Jeff Weiss), a wealthy, conflicted landowner who happens to be father to suicidally depressed former Marxist guerrilla Jeanine (Wendy Vanden Heuvel). Henri, whose character echoes that of Joe Keller from “All My Sons,” serves as the play’s ineffectual voice of conscience; aside from being in bad taste, he argues, the crucifixion could incite a peasant rebellion, thus driving down property values. “Shooting doesn’t work,” counters the unimpressed general. “People are shot every 10 minutes on TV. But nail a few of these bastards up and we’ll be the most peaceful country on the continent.”
Matters are further complicated by the arrival of an American film crew, headed by a producer (David Chandler) who is such an adept moral equivocator that he’s able to convince himself that filming a public execution is fundamentally no different than making a soap commercial. His irritatingly simpering director, played by Laila Robins, at least blanches when she learns of her assignment. But she, too, is won over by the prospect of material gain.
By design, all of these characters are gross caricatures — and crudely drawn ones at that. With his aviator shades, mustache and self-conscious suavity, Lloyd’s general is a compendium of every Hollywood third-world strongman. He’s less Dostoyevsky grand inquisitor than Groucho Marx in “Duck Soup.” Chandler’s producer, meanwhile, is meant to represent the indigenous American brand of oligarchy. At one point, he explains that, as a Princeton student, “My interest was in business, frankly. No history, no culture.” Then, to underline the jab at the 43rd president, he bobs his head like a spastic chicken.
Such broad humor would be more palatable if it were something beside gilt on Miller’s wide-ranging polemic. “Resurrection Blues” seems intent on decrying moral rot in all its modern incarnations, from profiteering pharmaceutical companies to the School of the Americas to reality television. There’s no doubting the play’s noble intentions, but when Miller evokes narco death squads, exploitative multinationals or Sept. 11 as moralistic shorthand, he risks the same glibness he condemns in American culture.
Perhaps inevitably, the Guthrie production seems unsure of its footing throughout. Director David Esbjornson, who recently helmed Miller’s “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” and Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” on Broadway, normally has a Midas touch with such work. Here, his conception is uncharacteristically vague, and the production’s tone vacillates awkwardly between satiric magical realism and embarrassingly earnest empire-in-decline angst. By the play’s literally deus ex machina ending, the timbre has drifted uncomfortably near sanctimony.
Nor is there much in the Guthrie production to excite the eye. The set by Christine Jones and lighting by Marcus Dilliard are spartan and unobtrusive: They neither distract from nor exaggerate the play’s considerable flaws — indeed, they don’t leave much of an impression at all.
The same, sadly, may be said of “Resurrection Blues” as a whole.