I the year since its premiere at the Guthrie, Arthur Miller has tweaked and trimmed his new play for this East Coast opening, but despite fancy set and lighting effects, “Resurrection Blues” still feels long and leaden. Directed with terminal earnestness by Jiri Zizka, the satiric script loses its jokeyness, climbs up on a soapbox and won’t budge for two and a half hours.
“Resurrection Blues” is set in a South American country where 2% of the population owns 96% of the wealth, drugs are the primary national product, guns are everywhere and contaminated water destroys children’s livers. (“After 38 years of civil war, what did you expect to find here, Sweden?,” a character asks.)
A man has appeared in the villages who seems to be the son of God. The strongman head of state has captured him and plans to execute him by crucifixion. An American television network has offered $25 million for the rights to broadcast the execution, complete with commercial breaks. “Wag the Dog” meets “Saint Joan.” “Survivor” meets “The Grand Inquisitor.”
The premise is a tempting one (and a spinoff from Miller’s 1992 New York Times essay in which he facetiously proposed that Shea Stadium be used for public executions for a ticket-buying audience). The venal ad exec threatens everybody with breach-of-contract suits if the show does not go on, while the conflicted director seduces the dictator into relenting. The plot is thickened by a tycoon-turned-philosopher whose revolutionary daughter is loved by the elusive savior.
But after we get the jibe (within the first five minutes of the play), the satire seems merely to explain itself, becoming more and more realistic and preachy, rather than building on ever more outrageous developments.
This tedium is due largely to the directorial decision to employ acting styles that puzzle rather than delight; there is no playfulness, no charm and not a shred of relationship between any of the characters. There is no venomous delight in the skewering and nothing in the staging to shock or astonish us. Thus the satire falls flat pretty fast, and we are left watching a cast of highly credentialed actors recite their lines as though on cruise control.
As the general, Munson Hicks sputters and waves his hands in gestures that seem as cliched as his shiny-booted costume and his impotence problem, while Patrick Husted, as his opposite number, plays Henri as an irritatingly ineffectual intellectual with a kind of Jimmy Durante delivery. The only comic relief comes from Douglas Rees’ Stanley, a sweet up-talking doper (think Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now”). Everybody else plays it straight, losing every opportunity inherent in the script for hilarious horror show or grotesque carnival.
In more then 50 years of playwriting, Miller has dramatized the fundamental oppositions between religion and politics, commerce and art, self-sacrifice and self-interest, action and ideas, and these issues are still his issues. But while “Resurrection Blues” has the old Miller moral outrage, it lacks a drama to contain them. Without characters, the play feels like a walking essay and the Wilma’s production feels like a stump speech.