Time has a way of giving older, once-dismissed plays new relevance and a second chance at success. But it also can underscore problems intrinsic to the work from the start. Such is the case with Arthur Miller’s “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” receiving a handsome production under helmer Gregory Mosher at the Westport Country Playhouse. While it provides an opportunity to look at one of Miller’s “lost” plays, the staging even in more sympathetic times seems unlikely to find a new path to Broadway. Regionals with scope for after-play discussions may be a better fit.
Miller premiered the work at D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 1977, and the production’s failure to make it to New York was a blow to the esteemed playwright. He subsequently reworked the piece, and the revised script (actually a return to his original draft, he said) was produced in 1986 at the Barbican in London, a city that would prove a more supportive artistic home for a playwright who felt increasingly marginalized in his native country.
But there were still no takers for Broadway, and the work was overlooked again during Miller’s late-in-life reappreciation.
It’s easy to see why “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” didn’t connect originally. In one way, it was tied too closely to current events, namely the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and its crackdown on intellectuals and dissidents. The dismantling of the Soviet empire in the 1980s and ’90s also gave the piece a more difficult and moving target.
Ironically, now it’s the misuse of government power here in the U.S. that gives the play new potency. During a discussion in the play about how all governments eavesdrop on their citizens, the American writer smugly counters, “The difference with us is it’s illegal.” This gets the show’s biggest aud reaction.
Despite such current connections, it remains a diffused play, too often filled with didactic speeches, awkward exposition and melodrama (a gun is introduced, waved and discarded for little effect other than to up the suspense ante). There’s some welcome humor, a hint of past naughtiness and some cloak-and-dagger allusions, but the essence of the work is four writers sitting around talking about what to do next.
Though dramatically unsatisfying and uneven, the play is filled — crammed, one might say — with challenging ideas about the relationships between the individual and the state. Auds are likely to be unmoved by the characters but fascinated by the issues the play raises — perhaps too many for the work’s own good. But they are heartfelt and important, and one admires Miller’s passion even while wishing he had crafted a better drama.
The play centers on the arrival of Adrian (Bruce McCarty), a famous American writer (think Philip Roth) in an Eastern European city once known as a cultural capital (think Prague) during an accelerating government crackdown on intellectuals and artists (think Vaclav Havel).
Friends and former writers Mara (Sara Surrey) and Marcus (David Rasche) have found a pleasant life accommodating their beliefs to match the authorities. But beloved dissident writer Sigmund (Thomas G. Waites) has completed a politically charged masterpiece. The secret police have confiscated it, and the writer appears on the brink of arrest and perhaps imprisonment. Should he flee his country or stay?
Everyone is urging Sigmund to act in certain ways, and all their motives are suspect. All of this — and much more — is discussed at length in the former archbishop’s residence, now the home of Marcus, an ex-writer relegated to showing foreign visitors how much progress is being made.
But is the ornate painted ceiling that Marcus shows his friends bugged? (See, it’s not just God who knows all. There is an even higher power.) Miller’s wicked twist is that the characters proceed with the knowledge that the government is listening. This aspect of the play — how people behave, edit and censor themselves in an alternate reality — is its most effective and intriguing.
The looming dominance of the ceiling reaches out into the aud with Alexander Dodge’s magnificent forced-perspective creation. Jane Greenwood’s ’70s costumes, Clifton Taylor’s lighting and John Gromada’s sound add to the play’s intricate layering.
But the characters often have a forced perspective, too, and several of the thesps have a difficult time handling Miller’s seesawing debate as more facts, backstories and motives are revealed in the second act.
McCarty brings a relaxed swagger as the American writer, a clear-headed, can-do character who doesn’t do well with the dense world of ambiguity and nuance. However, sometimes his character’s frustrations are just loud. Rasche has the right weary bon vivant manner as the compromised Marcus, but he too seems strained and less steady (accent, especially) as the exposition rolls out.
Waites starts out well as the dignified artist, but his outbursts at play’s end are almost operatic and out of sync with the rest of the play and perfs.
Surrey comes off best as the smooth but conflicted Maya, a onetime rebel and playwright who now finds the good life as host to a radio happy-talk show as well as solace in Vogue, which has become her only reality.
Heather Kenzie does well in the small part of Irina, Marcus’ Danish amour for the evening. Acting as a kind of existential extra, Irina is oblivious to the culture, language and politics of what’s happening onstage, numbly watching almost from the wings and waiting to put on some music and dance.
Miller, however, is far from the disinterested observer. With “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” he is again supporting the oppressed individual being beaten down by the powers above. But his ambitions here have hit a dramatic ceiling of their own, and all we can do is listen.