Memory acts as mostly as a curse in “Mr. Peters’ Connections,” and so it might for audience members attending Arthur Miller’s latest play. Does this short, jagged piece rank anywhere near Miller’s best — that’s to say, near an output of plays so burned into our consciousness that the National Theater can have its biggest hit of the year so far with “All My Sons”? Not remotely. And yet, there’s balm of sorts to be found in the presence of a dramatist still questing well into his 80s, as if certainty itself grew ever more elusive with age. “What is the subject?” asks Mr. Peters (John Cullum), the onetime Pan Am pilot whose mind is given over to flights of its own. For an answer to that query, among many others, Mr. Peters just will not give up his search, and one has to admire a dramatist who is similarly loath to come to rest.
Whether that makes “Mr. Peters’ Connections” more than a footnote to a remarkable career is open to debate, although there’s no denying the flinty vigor of Michael Blakemore’s British premiere of it, in his first directorial outing since nabbing two Tony Awards in June, not to mention Broadway veteran John Cullum’s scrappy performance in the title role. I missed the play in its Off Broadway premiere, with Peter Falk, in 1998 (a subsequent production occurred at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis) so can’t make any comparisons beyond noting — at the post-opening performance caught — that a fully attentive (and full) Almeida Theater audience seemed on the side of the play pretty much throughout.
At times, “Mr. Peters’ Connections” does try one’s patience: the closer Mr. Peters comes to the bed-ridden vulgarian, Lyman Felt, of “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” the shoddier this later play seems. (Blakemore, for the record, directed “Mount Morgan’s” world premiere on the West End, as well as important London revivals of “All My Sons” and “After the Fall.”) But there’s something about the quality of the play as lamentation that stays with you beyond the hymen jokes, along with its pithier remarks — example: “God is precisely what is not there when you need him.” There’s wit in Mr. Peters’ wisdom, as there is to Miller’s writing still.
Some may find the text an act of authorial hand-wringing, with Mr. Peters a Miller surrogate given to portentous remarks like, “Everyone I know is sleeping; maybe it’s something about the times.” And there’s no disputing the play’s function as would-be alarm clock (“You’re all awake, aren’t you?”) against the “terminal indifference” of the day. Rather more intriguingly, Miller here acts as a collagist of various moods rather than as any purveyor of narrative. It’s as if one’s sense of “Death of a Salesman” spiralling directly out of Willy Loman’s head has at last been made explicit, with the difference that chronology is junked in favor of a series of existential (and sardonic) riffs: imagine the more free-floating passages of “After the Fall” in the mouth of a napping hero.
The bulk of those fall, of course, to Mr. Peters, a difficult role that Cullum plays with a gruff quizzicality leavened by flashes of black comedy. (One wonders what a local interpreter of Miller — Michael Gambon, say — might make of the same part.) Mr. Peters’ ceaseless thirst for a subject allows him to flit among many, from the peccadilloes of past American presidents (there’s a good George Washington joke) to the relative appeal of houses as against “a pair of tits.” As Mr. Peters bristles and opines, a motley retinue listens, drifting in and out of his charred consciousness while set designer Peter J. Davison’s imposing urban landscape vertically stares the characters down. Are the other characters — a black bag lady among them, her jumble of possessions including a soiled American flag (subtle, that ) — there or not ? The answer is as irrelevant as the specifics of a locale at varying times given as a nightclub, a former cafeteria and “a dead bank.” What matters is Mr. Peters’ movement through a fantasia of his own making as well as of society’s, since — this being Miller — the individual cannot exist in isolation.
Some of the supporting players might learn from Cullum’s snarling panache, although it’s hard to know what anyone could make of the roles of two young lovers, one squeaky-voiced and pregnant, the other a nebbishy musician on his way to pick up the laundry. (For the record, the play also features a Monroe-esque — that’s to say doomed — blonde named Cathy-May.)
Nicholas Woodeson fares better as Mr. Peters’ initially jokey sounding board (“without women, you could forget lettuce”) turned dead-eyed at the end, just as Jan Waters bustles authoritatively about as Mrs. Peters, an aging Rockette whose happiness just may itself be a routine. By contrast, there’s no denying the despair of Mr. Peters, who wants sunsets “to go on forever and ever” and yet finds himself ineffably sad. He hears “darkness,” or so we’re told, which is where “Mr. Peters’ Connections” will deposit audiences wanting something tidy and well-made. But only connect, as E. M. Forster would say in his thematically related dictum, and another sight emerges — that of a senior dramatist, now in his ninth decade, still searching for the light.