The Crucifix

History will show that Pontius Pilate got a bad rap: The despot (John Bedford Lloyd, right) and his cousin (Jeff Weiss) plot a public execution

History will show that Pontius Pilate got a bad rap: The despot (John Bedford Lloyd, right) and his cousin (Jeff Weiss) plot a public execution

I almost had a very funny anecdote. At the reception following the opening of Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues this past Friday, a cheerful blond woman begged a writing utensil off me. She had purchased a copy of Miller's script and was hoping to get the playwright to sign it, but all I had was a bright orange crayon. As there was nothing else available, she graciously accepted my crayon and made her way to the Guthrie Theater's patio, where Miller was surrounded by a group of admirers. I watched eagerly, knowing a fine moment was in the making. You see, I use the orange crayon to amuse children by performing a particularly insipid magic trick with it. I hold it up to my face and partially hide it with one hand, until it appears to be hovering in space behind my palm. How is the trick done? I shove the crayon up my nose.

Unfortunately, when our intrepid autograph seeker presented her script and crayon to Arthur Miller, one of his well-wishers took pity on her and handed her a real pen. A shame, too, as my poor crayon has suffered such indignities that a brush with real greatness was badly deserved.

And Miller is still great, although in an entirely unexpected way. I have many complaints about Resurrection Blues, which I will soon get to, but let me start by saying that it is as challenging a script as has been mounted on the Guthrie stage in a great while. Miller's play is a rather shocking work of satire that feels less at home under the somewhat tepid artistic directorship of Joe Dowling, instead seeming like something that might have been mounted by Garland Wright, who favored messy, adventurous productions.

Miller tells of a South American dictatorship, ailing after decades of civil war, which is looking at a new period of prosperity, in part brought about by an American advertising firm. The firm has offered $25 million to the country's strutting, literally impotent despot (John Bedford Lloyd) in order to televise a crucifixion. The dictator's intellectual cousin (a weepy Jeff Weiss) shows up prior to the execution to plead for sanity: The condemned has been elevated to the level of a messiah among the peasantry, and the cousin fears that an execution might lead to a bloodbath. He begs to see the condemned man, and the strongman cheerfully agrees, opening a trap door in the floor of the Guthrie stage, from which a brilliant light streams. "Sometimes he just lights up," the despot says dismissively. "It's just a thing he does." It's a great comic scene, startling and absurd, and who would have expected it from Arthur Miller, whom we mostly associate with kitchen-sink tragedies where the only hint of the supernatural comes from the almost metaphysical unhappiness of his characters.

Miller has written his satire in bold, crude strokes: His characters are marked by few features but for their shallowness and greed. Even his messiah, never seen onstage, proves to be unexpectedly reluctant, incessantly changing his name from one bland appellation to another (he settles on Charlie) and preaching as prosaic a gospel as one might imagine. His message is summed up by one of his disciples, an American drug addict (played with great comic zeal by Bruce Bohne), as follows: "Don't do bad things, especially if you know they're bad, which you mostly do."

There are quite a few laughs in this production, and, thanks to Miller's bleak, bitter script, many of them are of my favorite variety: those accompanied by a shocked gasp. But this production is woefully uneven in tone--half the cast members seem to be playing their characters as broad parodies, and the other half as though trapped in some dour Greek tragedy. Jeff Weiss, in particular, plays his angst-struck, failed-Marxist intellectual as a gloomy voice of conscience, like a depressed Jiminy Cricket. The play gives him an equally dejected daughter, acted by Wendy vanden Heuval, who succeeded as a Marxist insurgent but failed as a suicide, and she barks angrily at him from her hospital bed while he weeps into his cap. Suddenly, this doesn't feel like the propulsive, giddy comedy of amorality we have been watching; it feels instead like A View From a Bridge, which is also a very good Arthur Miller play, but not the one we that came to see.

This unevenness in tone is disappointing, especially as David Esbjornson, a greatly skilled director, helms the play. Aside from having directed the Broadway production of Miller's previous show, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, Esbjornson was responsible for the Guthrie production of Hedda Gabler two years ago, and brought a whip-smart, salacious edge to a play that is traditionally done as a morose melodrama. That he should allow such undiluted breast-beating in this production is unexpected, especially as Miller has written even these strident characters with a cynical air--Weiss's Jiminy Cricket, it turns out, is a moneyed landowner who fears insurgency might ruin his property values.

That being said, Esbjornson does offer an utterly thrilling, confrontational staging at the play's climax. Miller's bilious script ends with the play's lone sympathetic characters begging the messiah to leave--in Miller's ironic universe, capitalism and decency cannot coexist without leading to unrestrained violence. And, briefly, Esbjornson shows us what a universe without faith, without hope, and without God looks like. He brings up the house lights and turns off the stage lights, and it looks like us, seated in our chairs in the brightly lit Guthrie auditorium.