Arthur Miller had a legitimate beef, back in 1964, when "After the Fall" was first presented by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in a production starring Jason Robards as Quentin, a man afraid to commit to marriage because of his guilt over the suicide of a previous wife, Maggie.

Arthur Miller had a legitimate beef, back in 1964, when “After the Fall” was first presented by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in a production starring Jason Robards as Quentin, a man afraid to commit to marriage because of his guilt over the suicide of a previous wife, Maggie. Miller complained that people were so fixated on Maggie’s resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, to whom the playwright had been married, that they disregarded the deeper, more relevant themes of his play and failed to evaluate it on its own merits. Fair enough. But after 40 years, the MM issue no longer looms so large over this transparently autobiographical work. And if “After the Fall” no longer seems like a man’s attempt to absolve himself for his callous treatment of a former wife, it now seems like an attempt to rationalize a broader range of questionable behavior.

Even with the play’s proper perspective restored, auds still get an eyeful of the voluptuous Maggie, a sweet-natured but dim-witted singer-superstar who worships Quentin because he once did her a kindness when she worked as a receptionist in his law office. (“I would do anything for you, Quentin — you’re like a god!”)

Carlo Gugino doesn’t take the self-destructive Maggie anywhere near the edge of the ledge where she’s hanging by the end of the play, hopelessly addicted to pills and liquor, a pathetic monster who keeps crying out for help in ways that are guaranteed to shoo potential rescuers away.

Gugino also doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of heart for Maggie’s mad scenes, her insane demands when she’s feeling professionally insecure, the nasty way she turns on people when she’s high on pills and liquor, the jealous rages she flies into when she can’t break through Quentin’s emotional aloofness.

But Gugino is a generous actress who gives Maggie what she craves — tenderness and understanding. There is dignity in her portrayal of Maggie’s innocent infatuations and kittenish sexuality, her childlike yearning to be protected and her terrible eagerness to please. If the actress doesn’t take Maggie to the depths, maybe it’s because she likes her too much to degrade her. It’s not the worst acting lapse.

Maggie’s vulnerable nature brings out the best side of Peter Krause’s Quentin in a scene in which they meet for the first time in a city park. Registering Quentin’s astonishment to find himself in the company of this beautiful and naive young woman, he smiles and responds to her chatter with such unguarded delight that he becomes the kind and charming gentleman she takes him for. Unfortunately, Krause’s connection to Miller’s hero rarely returns to this level.

Quentin is a demanding character who asks an actor to accept his narcissistic brooding as intellectual profundity and his arch condescension as moral superiority. Robards pulled it off brilliantly by believing in Quentin’s crises of conscience and finding something noble in his anguished struggle to resolve his ethical dilemmas. Krause, who effortlessly projects charm and intelligence on a TV screen, has no bones for this job, and his discomfort shows in his guarded expressions, wary line readings and stiff stage demeanor. Thesp, who also appears at least one, possibly two decades short of Quentin’s ideal age, doesn’t even look comfortable in the character’s suits and ties.

No reflection here on Michael Krass, whose early 1960s costumes are period-perfect in their rigidity of line and timidity of color. In fact, the costumes contribute enormously to the visual coup of the drama’s opening scene — set in Richard Hoover’s soaring version of the triumphal TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport — by adhering to a uniformly gray palette that sums up the sleek and stylish conformity of a self-satisfied era.

The expansive space, whose thrusting staircases and multiple platforms define it as a place of dramatic entrances and exits, plays right into helmer Michael Mayer’s hands. However arbitrary some of his casting choices, Mayer has a great feel for the complex construction of Miller’s play, staging its fragmented scenes with a fluidity that allows characters to transcend time and place to converge in the constant present.

Although the drama unfolds during the brief time that Quentin spends at the airport waiting for new g.f. Holga to arrive from Austria, “the action takes place,” according to Miller, “in the mind, thought and memory of Quentin.”

As Quentin waits in limbo, obsessively analyzing his life and assessing whether he’s worthy of happiness, characters from his past come and go, offering evidence that causes him to reassess his decision to ask Holga to marry him.

Taken at his word, the man is consumed with guilt for just about everything he has ever done, or left undone. He wasn’t a good son; he didn’t feel sorrow when his mother died (“Why can’t I mourn her?”) or when his father lost his money in the stock market crash. He wasn’t an honest man; when a communist friend he defended in a controversial political case threw himself under a train, he felt joy (“that joy when a burden dies — and leaves you safe”). He has no moral integrity; when Holga took him to a Nazi death camp, he felt no outrage. (“I thought I’d be indignant, or angry, but it’s like swallowing a lump of earth.”)

For sure, he was a lousy husband to his first wife, Louise, who makes the damning case for herself in Jessica Hecht’s fiercely intelligent perf. Miller brings a master’s touch to these brutal domestic scenes of a marriage on the rocks, giving equal voice and a full emotional arsenal to each combatant. When an aggrieved Quentin turns on Louise and demands, “If you would just once, of your own will, as right as you are — if you would come to me and say that something, something important was your fault and that you were sorry, it would help” — and when Louise replies: “Good God! What an idiot!” — you know there’s a playwright in the house.

The poignant scenes between Quentin and Lou (flawlessly played by Mark Nelson), the “saintly professor of law” who kills himself when his career is ruined, have the same kind of cutting honesty.

But in the end, this is Quentin’s play, and no matter how much he bewails his guilt, Miller doesn’t succeed in convincing us that this self-absorbed, emotionally detached man feels anything but self-satisfaction, or that he deserves absolution for the grief he gave to people who took him at his word and trusted him with their lives. In fact, he’s guilty as hell — of not really believing in his own guilt.

After the Fall

American Airlines Theater, New York; 728 seats; $86.25 top

Production

A Roundabout Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Arthur Miller. Directed by Michael Mayer.

Creative

Set, Richard Hoover; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; projections, Elaine J. McCarthy; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; production stage manager, James Harker. Roundabout artistic director, Todd Haimes. Opened July 29, 2004. Reviewed July 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Quentin - Peter Krause Holga - Vivienne Benesch Maggie - Carla Gugino Louise - Jessica Hecht Mother - Candy Buckley Father - Dan Ziskie Lou - Mark Nelson Elsie - Kathleen McNenny Mickey - Jonathan Walker Dan - Ken Marks
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