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HBO’s “Arthur Miller: Writer” Parses the Life of One of America’s Definitive Playwrights

Does every playwright eventually become akin to his or her characters? Tennessee Williams never penned a pill-popping drunk who choked to death on a nasal-spray bottle cap. Nor did any of Eugene O’Neill’s creations ever expire on the line, “Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” But it feels like they might have. And that’s how both those legends died, at least. To see eightyish Arthur Miller potter about in the woodshed in his daughter Rebecca’s new HBO documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer, one might muse that America’s great social dramatist ended up lost, forgotten — Willy Loman-like. The culture used him and cast him aside, evoking Willy’s pathetic orange peel metaphor: “A man is not a piece of fruit!” Tempting analogy, right?

Best to resist the temptation. It’s true that Miller’s success was woefully lopsided, but he had a joyful, long life (1915–2005) that was full of planting — plays as much as trees. (He seeded a pine forest of six thousand trunks at his sprawling estate in rural Connecticut.) If the last four-plus decades of Miller’s industry never fructified into the literary redwoods for which he’s famous, he kept watering and tending the garden, anyway.

Theater buffs know the general outline. Following the failure of The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), a rookie flop that nearly drove him from the stage, Miller bounced back to enjoy an astonishing run: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From the Bridge (in eight miraculous years), up to the beginning of the end, 1964’s After the Fall. Faced with the explosion of the youth counterculture, Vietnam protests, and theater’s growing irrelevance, Miller retreated to 350 acres in Roxbury, Connecticut, with his third wife and three kids (a fourth, a son with Down syndrome, was institutionalized). There, he cranked out twenty-odd more works that met with critical dismissal or outright hostility. A more hyperbolic assessment would say he was canonized and crucified simultaneously.

What happened? For some, the flashy answer might be: Marilyn Monroe. Miller’s five-year marriage to the Hollywood icon was a creatively fallow period during which he looked after the emotionally fragile actress and dodged paparazzi. Her death the year after their divorce never stopped haunting him. He returns to it in his last play, Finishing the Picture (2004), inspired by the making of the John Huston–directed The Misfits (1961), whose script he wrote for Monroe. But let’s say the screen legend is not to blame. Maybe Miller’s decline is simply what happens to a writer who generates so many masterpieces, and garners such national acclaim, in so short a time. As interviewee Mike Nichols asks, in the doc, vis-à-vis Death of a Salesman: “Did he or did he not feel that he burned something out when he wrote it? I think anyone who wrote Salesman, something would have burned out, because it’s so close to the target. It’s so…alive.”

In the years following his prime, Arthur Miller had the curious distinction of being canonized and crucified simultaneously.

So, there are plenty of theories. Rather than pick one, Rebecca Miller chronicles her father’s life in six affectionate but fairly unflinching chapters from childhood to Broadway breakthrough and the decades out of fashion. She pieces together the story through cozy, at-home interviews; scores of archival photos and video clips; and voice-overs of Miller reading from his memoir, Timebends. Tony Kushner pops up a couple of times to remind us how radical it was, two years after the Second World War, to condemn wartime profiteering at the expense of soldiers’ safety (All My Sons).

Rebecca makes clear that her father lived many lives. He was a teenager during the Great Depression (which wiped out his father’s garment business and robbed the family of its affluent lifestyle), a red-hot playwright alongside Odets and Williams, and an eloquent, serious writer when the nation still looked to Broadway for elevating discourse. And then there’s the not-quite-retiree. Chatting with his daughter, Miller comes across as a grandfatherly mensch: a relaxed, confident, incorrigible optimist. He seems to have been a decent father and dependable husband in his third marriage, to Austrian photographer Inge Morath. Miller never gave up the stage, even if he never caught lightning in a bottle again — that nexus of personal failing and social tragedy that could capture a nation’s imagination. Unless the filmmaker took pains to sanitize this portrait of the artist in senior citizenship, Miller grew into a reasonably happy man, at peace with himself and his legacy.

On the downside, we get only a cursory view of the theater industry of the Forties and Fifties. There’s time devoted to Miller’s intense friendship and collaboration with director Elia Kazan, and each of the great plays gets a little background about inspiration, plotline, and reception. But greater context and quotes from his contemporaries might have shed light on how dramaturgical fashions moved on — or how Miller’s influence is evident today in, say, the works of Kushner, J.T. Rogers, and Lynn Nottage.

It’s a funny subgenre, the playwright doc. You can find decent ones on O’Neill (from Ric Burns), Kushner, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and others. But they’re inherently incomplete. On the one hand, playwriting seems a less romantic occupation than the godlike and isolated novelist. Playwrights have to be social creatures. They may write in solitude, but they realize their visions in mini-communities of actors, directors, and designers. That sense of letting strangers into the room and taking the camera backstage where the art finds expression should, ideally, lead to an expansive portrait on film. But Rebecca Miller keeps the focus on the dogged, lifelong working man who built his own writing shed and hammered out a series of world-shaking dramas. It’s a great story, and partly true, but there’s more to it. Otherwise, the ironic takeaway would be: Arthur Miller wrote of society, even as he shut it out.

Arthur Miller: Writer is available to stream on HBO, and also airs Sunday, April 8, at 9:30 a.m.

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WILLY LOMAN 2.0

Attention must be paid. And the experimental company 600 Highwaymen 
makes paying it pretty easy with this innovative riff on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As part of the River to River Festival, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone restage this classic American tragedy (which packs plenty of Recession-era resonance) in a vacant storefront near the South Street Seaport. On a set composed solely of folding chairs, directors Browde and Silverstein intercut Miller’s midcentury dialogue with dance and 
choral music, streamlining the script until it runs a mere 100 minutes. The production features a 17-person cast, ranging from second-graders to septuagenarians, several of whom play the distressed and depressed Willy Loman.

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 10. Continues through July 13, 2013

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Electrick Children: A Curious Celebration of Faith

Could there be music that stirs us so powerfully it might impregnate? This mad question drives Electrick Children, the debut feature from writer/director Rebecca Thomas that impresses not least with its delicate blendings: a bildungs-romp that obeys all the Dazed & Confused unities, a religious thriller, an Arthur Miller-style indictment of communal extremism, and a curious celebration of faith. Rachel (Julia Garner, a marvel here) is a devout but sparkly 15-year-old living on a Mormon compound in Nowheresville, Utah. One night, she creeps into the basement and discovers a bright blue cassette tape: a single by the Nerves. In this rock-epiphany moment, she feels something stir within—and once her parents discover the pregnancy, Rachel screeches off in the family truck to avoid an arranged marriage. (“Marriage to Elijah Brooksby?! I don’t even have to ask God to know that’s not right,” Rachel says in a voiceover.) Rachel’s quest to find the “father” of her child—that mysterious voice on the tape—leads her to Vegas, where she falls in with a throng of well-meaning burnouts, including Clyde (Rory Culkin), and Rachel’s luminous purity keeps her strong through various skateboard hijinks and omnipresent ganja. (She eventually tracks down that generative voice, and it’s not quite who she expects.) Thomas never plays Mormonism for cheap jokes (only for the occasional good one), perhaps because she was raised Mormon herself. Electrick Children juggles heavy things, with humor and sobriety in their proper, Book of Ecclesiastes turn. Best of all, Thomas has an aversion to the easy resolution—she knows precisely which mysteries to keep dangling

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SOUTHERN COMFORT

When we first saw Scarlett Johansson on Broadway two years ago, she played the sweet 17-year-old orphan Catherine in 
Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge—and won a Tony for it to boot. Now she’s back and anything but sweet as feisty Maggie the Cat in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She’ll be burning up the stage alongside Benjamin Walker (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), who stars as her loveless alcoholic 
husband, Brick, in this tale of greed and deceit surrounding the family of a wealthy plantation owner on the eve of his 65th birthday. Tony and Emmy winner Rob Ashford, who most recently directed Jude Law in Anna Christie in London, directs.

Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Dec. 18. Continues through March 30, 2012

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Rangoon

Playwright Mayank Keshaviah—a former Wall Streeter turned scribe—attests that he was “theatrically . . . in conversation” with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as inspiration for his own stab at the crushed American Dream. However, based on Pan Asian Repertory’s dismal domestic play Rangoon, on view at Theatre Row, it can be assumed that Miller and the Loman clan were unresponsive.

Similar to Miller’s supreme opus only in that they both contain families, Keshaviah’s rambling ode to the working man expressly voices all of the clichés Miller strenuously avoided 60-plus years ago. Dhiraj Patel (Faizul Khan, stiffer than Willy’s corpse at the end of Salesman) is a 7-Eleven manager attempting to carve out a bright future for himself and his family, while fending off orders from his slick cousin (James Rana) who owns the franchise, and the spirit of his grandfather (Krishen Mehta), tsk-tsking his way though Dhiraj’s uneasy Western decisions. And what of that flirty Shoney’s waitress (Kylie Delre) who routinely buys out the store’s shelves of Sudafed and aluminum foil?

Yes, this is the type of play where an entire scene exists for a father to read the Riot Act to a son who gets a few B-pluses on his report card and one in which a daughter is berated for dating a white dude. Horrors! The lack of finesse extends to the actual production, listlessly directed by Raul Aranas on an impractical, ludicrous set by Kaori Akazawa. (Why use a dummy Christmas tree when an ugly, oblong pole will do the trick?) Rangoon seems content to coast solely on good intentions, but here one has to respectfully disagree with the Loman materfamilias: Attention need not be paid.

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TRAVELING MAN

Well, this one is certainly tough to resist: a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer-winning Death of a Salesman, starring none other than Philip Seymour Hoffman as tortured salesman Willy Loman, powerhouse Linda Emond as his wife, and dashing Andrew Garfield (of The Social Network) as the son who doesn’t want to follow his father’s dream for him to become a businessman. Mike Nichols, who last teamed up with Hoffman for The Seagull in Central Park in 2001, stages Miller’s wrenching tale of Willy’s breakdown after he realizes his company no longer needs him. Be sure to pack the Kleenex

Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Tuesdays, Thursdays, 7 p.m. Starts: Feb. 15. Continues through June 2, 2012

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BEST OF NYC®The Naked City

Once upon a time, go-go dancing only involved waxing your abs and shaking them around for tips while unimaginatively bumping to the music.

But thanks to the increasing sophistication of clubgoers—combined with the fact that the long-running burlesque revival isn’t going away due to the need for sexual entertainment in a whitewashed city—a lot of extra pressure has been put on go-go dancers’ pelvises. Suddenly they have to move in more interesting ways, and from a sexual bump-and-grind, it’s basically become performance art and a way higher form of half-naked club entertainment.

At the forefront of this movement is New York’s most bodacious go-go boy, Go-Go Harder, 25, who doesn’t just strip, he plans it, plots it, disrobes it, presents it, and truly works it.

I spoke to the rising club star about the artistic vision behind his mojo.

Hi, Go-Go. First off, where did a disrobing guy like you come from?

North Dakota. A little town called Minot, but sometimes they call it “Min-OH” if they want to sound sophisticated.

And your dream was to come to New York and strip?

No, I moved here to be a very serious actor. I thought I’d be Biff in Death of a Salesman or something, but I fell into nightlife and enjoyed it, so I started taking that to the next level. I lost my job as a waiter, and then a friend of mine got me a job at the Cock.

Did you have to audition?

No. I just showed up. I met [promoter] Daniel Nardicio shortly after that, and he helped launch me. He started employing me on Fire Island, and then I met performers World Famous *BOB* and Dirty Martini, and they set me on the path of burlesque. Daniel decided to have a Boylesque party, and we had to have numbers, which *BOB* and Dirty judged. I still do the same number, “Hot for Teacher,” where I’m a horny schoolboy.

How would you describe your stage presence?

I think I’m an edgier boy next door. I have this apple-pie quality that I think people find charming, and when you couple that with a striptease, it takes on a dirtier edge that titillates a little more. I’m a sluttier Richie Cunningham [from Happy Days].

Do tattoos up your naughty-boy ante?

I only have one right now, but I started working at the Glamour Garage in Brooklyn, and they’re going to hook me up with really cool ones.

What’s the key to neo-burlesque appeal?

There’s a lot more time and effort that goes into burlesque as opposed to straight stripping.
There’s always a gimmick or a scene. They’re three- to five-minute numbers that you create, and they’re usually funny and worked out. In New York, we do crazier comedic pieces that are political, too, though mine aren’t that political. A lot of people think the act of being naked or stripping is a political statement in itself. I just really enjoy it. I’m attracted to pieces that are strong and entertaining. I’m like Cher in Burlesque. I just want to be wild!

Why is the burlesque revival still going so strong?

I can’t really speak for women, but there are a lot of boys getting into it because it’s not just dancing. People have an exhibitionist side that they want to explore.

How long do you prepare a number?

A number is like a monologue. No good actor would walk into an audition without really having researched the piece. The performances I’ve given are the same way. You’re creating this monologue, from the costume to the dance to the actual removal of the costume. It takes at least a solid month. The “Hot for Teacher” one I feel like I’ve finally finished, and I’ve been doing it almost two years.

Where do you do better: straight events or gay ones?

I find that usually I can go over better with straight audiences. Gay men tend to be a little more pessimistic or weird about it because it’s not a drag queen.

Do audiences get sexually turned on by what you do, or is it just entertainment?

My shows are intended more to entertain, but the line between entertaining and sexually turning them on is pretty thin.

Like the G-strings! Does anyone ever cross the line and start grabbing you?

Sometimes when I’m go-go dancing, I have to really smile hard at someone and get their hand off me. But usually onstage, no one can get at you. People are intimidated by that fourth wall.

Do you ever get totally naked?

Of course. There’s a show called Revealed [at Under St. Marks], where that’s the whole gimmick—everyone takes everything off by end of the number. I don’t do that everywhere. I practice selective nudity!

What has been your wildest costume—or lack thereof?

I have this great costume—a big red sparkly gas mask and a giant purple boa with tassels on it. I wore it for the piece where I visually interpreted Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America” at the Low Life 5: Flaming Queens show at the Howl! Festival last June.

People must have howled. When you look in a mirror, do you see someone devastatingly gorgeous?

I wouldn’t say that. But I think after moving to New York, I realized people found me attractive, especially working in nightlife. I guess I’ve always felt lucky because I was the awkward theater guy in college, always off in corner reading Arthur Miller. I didn’t come into my sexual prime until New York.

Would you ever go back to legit acting?

If I found roles that interest me. But what attracts me to burlesque is it’s a way to create, to make a number. I’d miss having that control.

It’s no Arthur Miller play! How do you get your discarded clothes off the stage after the show?

There’s usually a “stage kitten” who runs out and collects the clothing, but at plenty of bar shows, I’m backstage saying, “Oh God, I’ve got to get that stuff.” I try to get a friend or promoter to do it—otherwise people will steal your things. At Bowery Poetry Club, someone stole one of my favorite jockstraps, which I threw into the audience. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or angry.

I’m sure you can get it back on eBay.

I know!

What’s your relationship with Daniel Nardicio?

We’re lovers now. We live together in Brooklyn. I’d say we’re pretty happy. If he tells you something different, shoot me a message on Facebook. [Laughs.] He’s a former actor, too. He has a respect for performers who sometimes get lost in nightlife. When you come from a performing background, you’re a little more sensitive to the performers’ needs.

Can we say your birth name?

Sure. It’s Chris Harder. My last name is actually Harder. [Pause.] Again, it never really made sense until I moved to New York.

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Albee on Albee

In 1960, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, a one-act play written as a 30th birthday present to himself, opened at the Provincetown Playhouse. In an accompanying essay, he noted, “Careers are funny things. They begin mysteriously, and just as mysteriously they can end; and I am at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and satisfying life in the theater.” Though he doesn’t count prophecy among his skills, the 82-year-old writer has since won Obies, Tonys, Pulitzers, and membership in a pantheon of American playwrights that includes Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. (He thinks Thornton Wilder ought to make the list, too.) His latest work, Me, Myself & I, a comedy about identical twins and their flummoxed mother, begins performances this week at Playwrights Horizons. Recently, Albee spent a morning at his maddeningly lovely Tribeca loft discussing he, himself, and him.

The Village Voice: It’s 50 years since The Zoo Story opened Off-Broadway. Did you have any idea then of the course your career would take?

Edward Albee: Well, having started by writing poetry and short fiction and novels, and knowing that none of it was any good, when I wrote The Zoo Story I was aware that I had finally written something that was good and that I might have a career as a writer, so that didn’t surprise me.

VV: What has surprised you?

EA: The unpredictability of critical response, vicissitudes of having a career in the arts—sometimes you’re in favor and sometimes you’re so completely out of favor that you could have written the best play in the world and they would still give it a bad review.

VV: And now you’re back Off-Broadway with a new play.

EA: I much prefer being Off-Broadway. Always have. The audiences are younger and more intelligent. Well, younger and/or more intelligent. The theaters are the proper size. The only problem there is the economics of the theater. The people who run the economics of the theater should be shot.

VV: How has Off-Broadway changed in 50 years?

EA: When we did Krapp’s Last Tape and The Zoo Story, ticket prices were $2. It cost $1,500 to produce. Now, it would cost $300,000, and tickets are $65 to $70. And it has very little to do with inflation. Everyone’s greedier these days.

VV: Have your literary tastes changed much over the years?

EA: No, although I’ve become more and more impatient with mediocrity. I’ve always liked the tough ones, the ones who try to make everyone think differently about the possibilities of the art form.

VV: Who are the tough ones?

EA: In the 20th century, it’s Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Brecht.

VV: Are there any of their plays that you would like to see revived?

EA: Yes, the good ones.

VV: And which of your plays do you wish would be revived more often?

EA: I’m selfish. All of them.

VV: All of them?

EA: All of them. The world would be a better place if theaters were filled with my plays all the time.

VV: Do you have any favorites?

EA: No. Not really. I like them all. Though I wish people would pay more attention to the ones that haven’t had much attention paid to them. The ones that haven’t been very successful. A play of mine called Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung is practically never performed. It’s a very good play. The Man Who Had Three Arms was a disaster on Broadway, so people have been informed they shouldn’t do it. That’s a very good play.

VV: What makes someone a good director of your work?

EA: To realize that the proper function of a director is to do an accurate translation of the play from the page to the stage. If the play is lousy, I suppose a director could improve it, as can actors. The better the play, the more damage they and the actors can do.

VV: So you’re not a great believer in director’s theater?

EA: Good God, no. We don’t write plays to have them fucked over by other people.

VV: Now, some academic critics—

EA: Oh, academic critics, that’s a whole other thing! These so-called scholars who write endless, boring papers on one’s work having nothing to do with one’s intention or result at all? Those people?

VV: Yes, those people. They talk about you as part of a tradition of great American playwriting, as an inheritor to O’Neill, to Williams, to Miller.

EA: Everybody forgets the most important of those: Thornton Wilder. If you’re going to have those three others on that list, you have to include Wilder. O’Neill is a very powerful playwright, but he has a tin ear. Wilder had a beautiful ear. Especially with Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. That talent is extraordinary.

VV: Have you seen the revival of Our Town?

EA: Oh, it’s the best production of it I’ve ever seen. Without question. Because it understands that the play is not a Christmas card. It’s a tough, existentialist play. If you’re not crying in the first 10 minutes that you’re there, you’re at the wrong play.

VV: I think I started crying during the last 10 minutes.

EA: Once you’ve seen it, when you go back and see it again, you start crying a lot earlier.

VV: Have you ever thought of working with [Our Town director] David Cromer?

EA: I would love to.

VV: Does he know this?

EA: Well, I met him. He asked me if I’d come in and take over the stage manager role for a few weeks. I couldn’t. I was deeply tempted. I’m not a bad actor. But I was too busy. It would have been nice.

VV: How often do you go to the theater?

EA: Too often. I try to see new plays, new talent. Some young playwrights are overrated and others are undervalued. I don’t want to mention names.

VV: You won’t tell me? That’s so cruel!

EA: It just wouldn’t be fair.

VV: Now, you don’t like to have your plays interpreted using your biography—

EA: I never put me in a play. I don’t write about me. I write about more interesting people, more dramatic people. More dramatically interesting people.

VV: And yet when I was reading Me, Myself, and I, I couldn’t help noticing biographical resonances.

EA: Like what?

VV: A difficult relationship between mother and son, a mother who can’t or won’t recognize her sons.

EA: How I wish I’d had that mother, compared to the one I had. The only autobiographical thing you might find in this play is that I probably thought that maybe I must have had a brother somewhere. Identical twins turn up in a few of my plays. So, maybe I thought I had an identical twin. I don’t know.

VV: Do you have other plays that you’re working on?

EA: Yes, two.

VV: Can you reveal anything about them?

EA: I have one that I believe is going to be quite funny. And the other is not.

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The Misfits

Dir.John Huston (1961).
Whatever its qualities, this last film of two screen greats, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, couldn’t help but be of interest. But, considering that it was written by Arthur Miller, directed by Huston, and also co-stars cult divinity Montgomery Clift, it should have been a classic but isn’t. Miller’s verbose script involves a bunch of lost souls, mainly brooding cowboys, gathered around divorcée Marilyn in Nevada. In this awkward film, her character never comes fully into focus. Clift is fine, as is the great Thelma Ritter as support gal.

Thu., March 25, 4:30, 7 & 9:30 p.m., 2010

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GET A ROOM

Oh, if only the walls of the Hotel Chelsea could talk. Many legendary characters have checked in to this historic hotel, including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Arthur Miller—and some never checked out (the poet Dylan Thomas and, famously, Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, both died there). But, apparently, the one thing that has never happened in any of the hotel’s suites is a play: Pale Fire Productions now presents Room #103, Hotel Chelsea, set inside the room that features the actual bathroom where Sid allegedly killed Nancy. Director-writer James Veitch’s site-specific show, which is centered on Thomas’s life and his alcohol-fueled demise, also features drop-ins from hotel guests such as Janis Joplin and Jack Kerouac.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 & 9 p.m. Starts: March 18. Continues through March 27, 2010