WITH A minimum of camouflage, the private lives of three of America's famous men of the stage are on display in Washington theaters at the moment. In "After the Fall" (at Arena Stage), "All That Jazz" (at the Uptown Theater) and "Chapter Two" (at the Fine Arts and assorted suburban locations), Arthur Miller, Bob Fosse and Neil Simon tell us about the arducus personal and professional trials of men strangely like themselves.
Each creator -- Miller, Fosse, Simon -- is an extremely successful product of the Broadway theater, an accomplished shuttler between New York and Hollywood, and now or once married to a famous actress (Marilyn Monroe, Gwen Verdon and Marsha Mason). Each presents us with a hero whom we see moving awkwardly into a new partnership in the aftermath of a first marriage.
The similarities between "After the Fall" and "All That Jazz" go further. Both are free-form, fragmented, stream-of-consciousness overviews of their protagonists' lives. Both gives us that fly-on-the-ceiling feeling that we are looking in on the brutal, unexpurgated detail of two real lives -- including details about drugs, sex and suicidal tendencies that would delight the National Enquirer. Both have the ability to appall us and hold our attention simultaneously -- "After the Fall," in the present case, because of a stunning production directed by Zelda Fichandler. And both have brought heaping criticism on their creators for telling us more about their lives than, supposedly, we wanted to know. (Fosse had a co-screenwriter on "All That Jazz," Robert Alan Aurthur, but a major part of his job seems to have been to follow Fosse around and take copious notes.)
Fosse's movie has been widely condemned as "self-indulgent." Miller's play has been attacked for "exploiting" the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe, who committed suicide only a year-and-a-half before "After the Fall's" original 1964 production by the Repertory Theater Company of Lincoln Center.
These are easy pejoratives without widely accepted definitions. But the tough response to the works echo the tough (and anything but new) question they raise: How much, if at all, should we take into account what we know of the parallels between fiction and fact?
Even in these let-it-all-hang-out times, there is a lingering attitude that a dramatic work should make sense -- whatever sense it makes -- without reference to specialized knowledge about its creator. As Bob Fosse has pointed out, "In five years everybody will forget if this picture was semi-autobiographical or not and they'll just look at it as a movie."
That's possible. It is also possible that in five years "All That Jazz" itself will be forgotten. Five years is a long time in the life of a movie. Directors and critics may have the luxury to think about posterity; but others connected with the entertainment business rarely think beyond tax time.
Also working against Fosse's reasonable-sounding argument is the reasonable desire of a movie- or theatergoer to make the most of the fare that is put before him. If a play or movie seems false or tedious or incomplete, our minds reach out for anything external that adds interest. And "After the Fall" -- in marked contrast to "All That Jazz" and "Chapter Two" -- becomes a much more interesting work when viewed in its real-life context.
Zelda Fichandler, whose sharp and fluid direction realizes every good possibility in Miller's play, knows only too well that "After the Fall" is more stimulating as the story of Arthur Miller, the playwright, and Marilyn Monroe, the movie star, than if we give these characters their face values as a lawyer named Quentin and a receptionist-turned-singer named Maggie. She proves the point by having Linda Lee Johnson, the fine actress who plays Maggie, look as evocatively Monroe-like as possible. But even in the text, the disguises worn by Quentin and Maggie won't stand up to close examination. Quentin is a lawyer, Miller tells us -- but he is a lawyer with a suspiciously literary compulsion to analyze his own and other people's personalities at exhausting length. Miller's protagonist is forever coming to such conclusions as that "we are born of errors -- a human being has to forgive himself," and that "it does seem feasible not to be afraid -- perhaps that's all one has."
As for Maggie, her words continually conjure up the image of Monroe. When a strange man nearly gets her to share a taxicab with him, she explains to Quentin that such things often happen to her. "It's because you talk to them," Quentin points out instructively, "But they talk to me, so I have to answer," she says disarmingly. Defensive about the long list of men in her life, she explains: "I was with a lot of people, but I never got anything for it. It was like charity."
These are moments so convincing that it is possible to imagine the husband/playwright taking out his notebook after an ugly scene with his wife to jot it all down. But more important than the words and their rhythms is the story itself. Maggie is drawn to Quentin because he seems less crude and more substantial than the other men in her life. The relationship may be plausible standing alone, but it is infinitely heightened when we superimpose the knowledge that Monroe was an actress who wanted desperately to be taken seriously and Miller was one of the most serious playwrights on the horizon.
Quentin says he was attracted to Maggie for her spontaneity as well as her looks: "She wasn't upholding anything or defending or accusing -- she was just there, like a cat." (Like "a cat on a hot tin roof," perhaps?) He is also filled with the guilty sense that he may have taken harmful advantage of Maggie's mental fragility. But how much more understandable are the lure and the guilt, too, when we reckon in the knowledge that Maggie's real-life counterpart was the most sensational movie star of the day?
If Miller has gone to excessive lengths to disguise real life, Fosse has worked just as hard to leave it alone. In "All That Jazz," even the trivial details of Joe Gideon's life tend to follow the trivial details of Bob Fosse's. Both live on West 58th Street in Manhattan, both suffer heart attacks while rehearsing musicals starring their former wives, both are chain-smokers. The list goes on.
Few movies encourage second-guessing as "All That Jazz" does. Because so much of it works so well, it seems a shame that someone could not have taken Fosse aside early in the game and persuaded him that, among other problems, his dream encounter with the Angel of Death and his unflagging loyalty to the events of his own life were standing in the way of a better movie.
But this is just a symptom of the movie's underlying ailment. "All That Jazz" addresses -- or, at any rate, hovers around -- the question of why some people seem to lavish all their interest and mental energy on their work and have none left over for other people. This is fascinating subject matter and, along with the intense dance sequences and gritty show-business texture, helps make Fosse's movie interesting even in some of its most obnoxious moments. But there is something missing, something critical: a sense of connection between Joe Gideon's compulsions, strengths and weaknesses and similar qualities in other people, a sense that he is made of the same stuff they are. If Fosse had felt this, he would not have needed anyone else to tell him to use his own life more selectively. By instinct, he would have drawn his inspiration from other lives as well. Joe Gideon never talks about his curious lack of interest in other people or in anything about women beyond their attitude toward him. Quentin never stops talking about the same question. He is obsessed with the need to reach out and commit himself to others rather than withdraw from them, and he is tested in the play not only by three very different women but by the duty to defend a colleague called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (In another real-life irony, there is a character in "After the Fall" -- Mickey, played by Richard Bauer -- who not only testifies but names names, which is precisely what Elia Kazan, the play's original director, did.)
But Quentin's dilemma is an argument played out in a writer's head rather than the real stuff of human uncertainty. The duty of commitment seems to be just that -- a duty, untarnished by pleasure.
Centered on a green marble-like slab, bounded by the concentration camp towers that define the perimeters of Quentin's anguish, the Arena "After the Fall" is beautiful to look at and commandingly performed. Fichandler has made the idea of a play told in stream-of-consciousness seem powerful as well as novel. But the people in Miller's work remain as cold as carcasses in a meat freezer.
"Chapter Two," on the other hand, seems just as cute and light as most of Neil Simon's non-autobiographical productions. His hero suffers from the same intestinal preoccupations and the same punch-line mentality as his other heroes, although the repartee seems unusually strained this time out. h
The desperation of the gags may, like the clinical tone of "All That Jazz" and the over-elaboration of Quentin's commentary in "After the Fall," he signs of the author's discomfort with the autobiographical side of his story. The symptoms are different, but like Miller's and Fosse's works, Simon's has an unpleasant rigidity to it. Pain and love are conveyed in the most fatuous movie shorthand -- with lush music, dewy-eyed montages, and distracted looks (chiefly on Caan's part). Everything is too precisely orchestrated, as though Simon were unwilling to tap the real feelings of a man who had lost a wife to cancer, as he did.
When an artist makes wholesale use of his own recent life, there is a tendency to say too much and too little at once. So "All That Jazz" and "After the Fall" can make us churn in our seats, and "Chapter Two" will draw its share of giggles. But deeper responses will have to wait.