Arthur Miller's new play begins with the naked body of an intensely troubled young movie star wandering through a luxury hotel. And an avuncular, intellectual writer -- guess who? -- is the self-designated head of the wrecking crew. He exhibits all the sensitivity of an egocentric, second-rate Hamlet.

Arthur Miller’s new play begins with the naked body of an intensely troubled young movie star wandering through a luxury hotel: It’s Marilyn as Ophelia. Out in the desert, a rapacious clutch of Hollywood minders, acolytes, coaches and corporate vultures are desperately trying to save their personal bacon and finish the damn picture, whatever the human cost to their professional disaster of a star. And an avuncular, intellectual writer — guess who? — is the self-designated head of the wrecking crew. He exhibits all the sensitivity of an egocentric, second-rate Hamlet.

The writer is madly in love with the frail and beautiful actress, who happens to be his wife. But in the twisted psychological terrain of this — heck, maybe that should be any — marriage, that’s exactly what prevents him from giving her what she so desperately needs.

The pill-popping actress in question here is a brunette named Kitty (Heather Prete), and no one ever mentions a Monroe movie penned by one Arthur Miller called “The Misfits.” But if anyone still doubted that the elderly Miller remains consumed and compelled both by the sensual memory of his former wife and the complexity of his role in her demise, this bleak comedy stands as firm evidence to the contrary. Whether the playwright sees it that way or not.

For better or worse, Miller here is concerned with why this actress — this very recognizable actress — can’t, or won’t, get out of bed and act like the sensual genius she was meant to be.

Clearly, Miller wants us to spend our time pondering who or what is to blame for that state of affairs. Unreasonable expectations? The dabbling of wacko method-acting coaches otherwise once known as the Strasbergs? The inherent evils of the biz? The greed of a voracious public? Her louse of a writer-husband?

All of the above, squared?

This is the central — if not the only — question of a play that’s perfectly willing to lapse into dramatic inertia in order to retain its singular focus.

This is a play about what happens when an important woman will not get out of bed. Pure and simple. The entire first act comprises panicked movie people, all sitting around their hotel. We meet the fair-minded but bewildered producer imported from the trucking industry (Stacy Keach), the tough-love cinematographer (Scott Glenn), the colorful director (Harris Yulin), the manipulative coaches/gurus (Linda Lavin and Stephen Lang) and the hapless writer-husband (Matthew Modine).

All pass the act asking the question “Why won’t she get up” time after time, except when they can be found asking the other question of the night: “What can we do to make her get up?”

In the second act, we see Kitty naked in bed, maybe getting up, maybe not.

Do we care? Sure we do.

Given the history, there’s inevitable voyeuristic appeal here for students of the popular culture — especially when we have a star-studded and flashy Robert Falls production, replete with some generally lively acting, fake movie footage, video projections and the stiff-as-a-board Modine in the guise of a Miller alter-ego.

In typically fearless fashion, Falls adds cynical directorial teeth to Miller’s gentler written barbs, allowing an especially caustic Lavin to take down Mme. Strasberg (we assume) in spectacular fashion and poking fun at all the familiar icons of the movie backstory.

Falls works a careful line between homage and parody, literalness and satirical distance. Thankfully, he manages to avoid falling off either cliff.

This kind of voyeuristic-gossipy appeal will, I suspect, be enough to move this play to Broadway in a commercially viable way, and even to find it an audience.

But appreciating “Finishing the Picture” merely on that level feels like too guilty a pleasure to render satisfaction to the thinking person or to net the enterprise a bevy of boffo reviews in important publications. Miller, after all, has to fight the expectations occasioned by his personal history of more than half a century of genius and social conscience.

The ongoing theatrical viability of “Finishing the Picture” really will depend on two open questions:

Can an audience find enough universality in its themes to render its apparent myopia allegorical? And is Miller such a poignant poet of the troubled American soul that his theme matters not so much as the eloquence of the elegy?

Getting to that place on both of those counts might take some rewriting, should Miller be up for that. And for many viewers, this undeniably esoteric, static and tightly controlled play simply will fail to ever arrive at either place.

But longtime fans of this great author will find an affectionate place for this work — with its title implying a strange finality. Sure, disgruntling paradoxes abound. The play wants us to sympathize with the demands of poor naked Kitty, yet it refuses to give her either clothes or a voice. It feels like a settling of old scores, yet it won’t come out and say so.

Thanks to Lavin and Glenn (funny but far from subtle) the moments of anti-method parody are high comedy that will be enjoyed by any writer or intellectuals who has been told once too often that he is too heady to be an artist.

And insiders will recognize copious amounts of on-the-set bullshit called for what it is.

But the real core of this play, ironically, lies in its most underwritten and underdirected sections: namely, the moments when the writer-husband cannot save his wife because he cannot love her the way she needs.

Try as he might, he thinks too much and gets angry. Played with more certainty, the character would give the play the gravitas it needs as an anchor.

Even though Modine looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here (which is not entirely a bad thing), those sections of “Finishing the Picture” already work better than anything else.

For we pity their biographical referent. And we fear we would do the same things ourselves, whether the one we loved was Marilyn Monroe or the girl next door.

Finishing the Picture

Goodman Theater, Chicago; 856 seats; $60 top

Production

A Goodman Theater production of a play in two acts by Arthur Miller. Directed by Robert Falls.

Creative

Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Michael Philippi; music and sound, Richard Woodbury; production stage manager, Joseph Drummond. Opened Oct. 5, 2004; reviewed Oct. 4. Runs through Nov. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Phillip Ochsner - Stacy Keach Edna Meyers - Frances Fisher Kitty - Heather Prete Derek Clemson - Harris Yulin Flora Fassinger - Linda Lavin Terry Case - Scott Glenn Paul - Matthew Modine Jerome Fassinger - Stephen Lang
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