MR. PETERS’ CONNECTIONS, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Gary Hynes. Starring Peter Falk. At the Signature Theatre Co., 555 W. 42 St. Run ended June 21.
Garry Hynes, who recently won a Tony Award for her direction of Martin McDonagh’s hit Broadway transfer, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” seemed a rather peculiar choice to handle a new play by Arthur Miller when the 82-year-old playwright’s “Mr. Peters’ Connections” was announced as the closer for the four-play season the Signature Theatre company had dedicated to the Brooklyn-born writer’s work.
In the end, Hynes, co-founder and principal director of Galway’s Druid Theatre Company, did a creditable job with Miller’s long and somewhat enigmatic one-acter. Creditable, but perhaps not the sort of job the play really needed, the sort of treatment Miller’s earlier plays once received at the hands of directors such as Elia Kazan and even the late Harold Clurman, directors who understood the world about which Miller was writing and who could help him focus and clarify his work until it presented itself to its best possible advantage.
“Mr. Peters’ Connections” will never rank among Miller’s really resonant works, partly because of its brevity, and, perhaps, partly due to the efficient but rather pallid production overseen by Hynes, who, to be fair, shouldn’t reasonably have been expected to have been able to digest the urban, essentially Jewish, world that produced this particular writer. The play is, however, of genuine interest and value.
Ironically, while Miller’s play was in the midst of its Signature run, Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” was on display in Miller’s home borough, for three performances only, as part of the local visit, now completed, of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company with the Brooklyn Academy of Music acting as host and sponsor.
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The similarities shared by “Krapp” and “Mr. Peters” might not spring into view immediately, but they are nevertheless present, and interesting.
“Krapp’s Last Tape,” written in 1958, when Beckett was only 42, is nevertheless a strongly autobiographical work, a 50-minute play in which the author projects himself, or someone very much like himself, into if not precisely old age, at least into advanced late middle age. We meet Krapp on his 68th birthday, as he examines events from his past life by playing and listening to tapes he’s made, once a year, always on his birthday.
Mr. Peters is probably more or less the same age as Krapp, while his creator is 82, and, evidently, contemplating mortality. Mr. Peters, a retired airline pilot, and played by Peter Falk in the Signature staging, has returned to a section of Brooklyn which he knew as a younger man, perhaps as a child.
He doesn’t quite seem to know why he has come back to the area, but he is wearing a squeaky new pair of old-fashioned, two-tone shoes, so their purchase may well have motivated his return. Entering what Miller’s text describes as “a broken structure indicating an old abandoned night club,” almost the first words Peters speaks includes the question: “What is the subject?”
It is an inquiry the character makes again and again throughout the play’s approximately 90-minute running time, never receiving an answer.
Is Peters alive, or has he died? Is the battered set, with his fallen, broken proscenium arch, really some sort of way station between life and whatever, if anything, lies beyond?
Presiding over the ruined night club is a character called Calvin (Jeff Weiss), who, at times, appears to resemble Charon, the boatman on the River Styx. At other moments in the play, hints are dropped that he is actually Mr. Peters’s brother, possibly deceased.
Six other characters appear during the course of Mr. Peters’s visit to the crumbling casino, one of them, Adele (Erica Bradshaw), a black bag lady who may or may not be his nurse.
Others of the secondary characters have definite connections to Peters, and, in one poignant case, to Miller himself. A character called Cathy M’, and played sweetly and gently by Kris Carr, appears to be based fairly closely on aspects of the late Marilyn Monroe, to whom the playwright was married during the 1950s.
Also present are Cathy M”s angry husband, Larry, played by Daniel Oreskes, and a young couple whose links to Peters are vague at best. The boy (Alan Mozes), is tentative and frightened. The girl (Tari Signor), is possibly pregnant and surprisingly unafraid.
Arriving in the play’s final moments is the only character whose ties to the central figure are clear and unavoidable. She is Charlotte, his wife, played with energy and specificity by the unfailing Anne Jackson, in a role as vibrant as the tomato red suit and hat she wears.
Miller’s Mr. Peters, like Beckett’s Krapp, is sifting through his past for clues to whatever future he may still face. Krapp’s clues are aural, spoken in his own voice on the birthday tapes he has made over the course of some 30 years.
Mr. Peters’s clues are embodied by the people who appear to him in the half-destroyed club, and they have, to one extent or another, wills of their own, although they remain, for the most part, unable or unwilling to provide Peters with answers to the questions he asks.
Miller has sometimes been accused or remoteness and even coldness, yet the truth is that he has always, or often, written very personally, if one knows how to listen for the clues contained in his voice. “Mr. Peters’ Connections,” replete with echoes of much of his former work, may be slight when compared to his greatest plays, but it is nevertheless an indispensable and valuable addition to the Miller canon, a kind of intensely personal summing up by a writer of inestimable value.