This is a media event. Hell, the exclusive worldwide media rights have been sold to a conscience-free Madison Avenue firm for $75 million. And what exactly is the event? Only the silencing of a South American dissident who is fomenting insurrection in a banana republic and who may or not be the new messiah. And how is he to be silenced? By crucifixion, live on TV. No-one could argue that Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues,” in its British premiere directed by Robert Altman, is without ideas in its head. Ideas alone, alas, are not enough.
We’re in the realm (supposedly) of political satire, with Miller’s sights fixed not on religion — the messiah is represented only by glowing light — but on American greed and the triumph of commerce over morality. Sure, the crucifixion will be screened with commercials, but they’ll be “dignified.”
Everything rests on the character of the state dictator, General Felix Barriaux (a woefully dogged, trudging Maximillian Schell), who is important and — here’s the big joke, folks — impotent. Yes, the resurrection of the title is a pun — never a good motivating idea for a drama.
The general’s entire outlook is changed by the intervention of naive Emily (overactive Jane Adams), the commercials director brought in to shoot the crucifixion, who beds him to save the messiah’s life.
Miller was revising this play, first seen in 1999, until a month before his death in 2005, and it is that last version that Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey decided should be staged. It’s hardly a small undertaking, and the size of cast — nine principals plus assorted non-speaking soldiers, waiters, peasants and passersby — must have influenced the decision to hire Altman to direct. Ironically, what the production sorely lacks is focus.
Part of the blame must be shouldered by Robin Wagner’s monolithic, Inca temple set, which looks like a cross between a misbegotten “Aida” and something someone unnecessarily rescued from the era design forgot. Did no one tell him comedy requires speed and precision? All giant slabs of fake stone, it’s lumpen and slow-moving enough to necessitate lengthy scene changes and make you wonder what it might be made of … reinforced cardboard, perhaps?
Not as cardboard as most of the characters, mind you. Plucky Matthew Modine deserves some kind of award for managing to infuse invigorating enthusiasm to the one-dimensional stereotype of a (soulless, natch) account executive. The startlingly versatile Peter McDonald follows his recent helpless alcoholic in the Donmar’s “Days of Wine and Roses” with a nice comic turn here, keeping a welcome gleam in his eye as a revolutionary majoring in fecklessness.
Neve Campbell, too, emerges with her dignity intact playing the notion of hope. Actually, her character has a name and a backstory — niece of the general, revolutionary, failed-suicide — but it’s so underwritten as to be virtually unplayable. Nor is she helped by wooden James Fox as her father. Faced by his formerly wheelchair-using, now suddenly and miraculously healed daughter, Fox greets her with all the rhapsodic joy you might accord a cousin returning from a trip to the bathroom.
Satire requires dancing energy, not earnestness; glancing blows, not four-square engagement. If Altman had been able to take some of these ingredients and edit them with rhythmic gusto, it might have worked onscreen. Live onstage, he invests comedy with its deadliest enemy: torpor.
Despite the unquestionable greatness of Miller’s back catalog, none of his obituary writers sought to make a case for the playwright as one of the last century’s great political satirists. Indeed, 30 years before Miller’s death, Noel Coward waspishly confided to his diary, “The cruelest blow life has dealt him is that he hasn’t a grain of humor.” On the strength of this dumbfounding production, it’s hard not to agree.