Apple sauce

Adam and Eve show a lot of cheek in 11th Street's Arthur Miller revival

The 11th Street Theatre Project's revival of Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business is timed well, as another of our premier stage moralist's little-produced efforts, A View From the Bridge, has been generating a firestorm of critical and audience praise for its current New York production. The latter is an unabashed ethnic American tragedy predicated on an uncle's quasi-incestuous preoccupation with his niece. The Creation of the World presents a comic template--or rather, Miller's comic gussying up of the Western template--for the sexual obsession that drives two of his more famous plays, the absolutely unautobiographical After the Fall and The Crucible.

Miller lays out in spare, clinical terms the whole confusing saga of the first family as portrayed in the book of Genesis. He sets one contradiction against the other to show that, if there is much muddled and misinterpreted communication between the sexes, that's perfectly on par with the story of how Adam and Eve were punished by God simply because they acquired knowledge about their own bodies.

With equal parts toughness and delight, Miller also presents Christianity's creation story without denominational baggage: He asks the questions that are simplest yet most profound, what I call "the Sunday school questions." There's no highfalutin hairsplitting about what historical periods rescinded which Old Testament doctrines and what so-and-so really must have meant when he said this or that. My own blessedly brief experience with Protestantism as a kid--the occasional visit to a friend's church-related youth activities--proved that little kids know the real questions to ask. "So if you're a Christian and your best friend isn't, and God sends you to heaven and your best friend to hell, how can you enjoy eternal salvation knowing your best friend is in hell?" I recall one young theologian asking a befuddled youth minister, who replied that all his love would be with God in the afterlife. "Does that mean God will make me forget my best friend after I die? Will He do that with all my family members who don't go to heaven?" This discussion was cut short by treat time when the kid declared he'd rather go to hell with his best friend than be alone with God in heaven; they couldn't fill our mouths with juice and store-bought cookies fast enough after that.

Arthur Miller approaches the story of Adam and Eve, and their life as parents after the apple incident, with the same childlike skepticism about all those Genesis questions we're supposed to swallow in the name of faith. Wasn't the Old Testament God creepily like some Orwellian tyrant, content with the creations he'd made in his own image only until they started asking too many questions? Wasn't the archangel Lucifer motivated at least in part by a genuine desire to illuminate the lives of Adam and Eve with the knowledge of their own bodies and their place in the universe? This exploration of the nuances of a most mysterious, titanically influential tale can best be summed up by a line from Miller's God: "Sometimes it's only after I do something that I discover the reasons I did it."

Eleventh Street Theatre's show opens with God (Jeff Bush) holding court with his angels over paradise. His chief cohort, Lucifer (Kevin Keating), shows a propensity for second-guessing God's decisions, especially where the creator's favorite breathing clay likeness, Adam (Shane Beeson), is concerned. As you probably already know, things begin to go downhill after God makes a companion named Eve (Blue McDonnell). She's too inquisitive for her own good, and soon, the first couple are propelled into a nightmare of pleasure, pain, clothes, and ungrateful sons like Cain (Kevin Grammer) and Abel (Conn Larson).

On the opening-night performance I attended, either there were some technical glitches or 11th Street Theatre Project hadn't quite mastered their expanded resources. 11th Street has often put the audience onstage with the actors in St. Matthew's Cathedral, dividing the stage in half and pulling the curtain to block out the empty auditorium. With The Creation of the World and Other Business, they placed ticket-buyers back into the auditorium. Sound, in particular, was a trouble spot. Many of the effects weren't integrated well into the action; a few you could barely hear. And although the lighting worked well for a second-act seduction sequence between Eve and Cain, some of the subtler mood stuff during the first act didn't quite hit the mark onstage.

For the rest of the time, the church auditorium setting for this production of The Creation of the World and Other Business seemed especially apt, even a tad transgressive, when you consider the thorough interrogation Miller gives the scriptures. This sexual passion play, delivered with a frame of red velvet curtain around it, has two terrific leads in Blue McDonnell and Shane Beeson. McDonnell, whom I last saw as a spoiled, slutty Desdemona in 11th Street's production of Paula Vogel's Desdemona...a play about a handkerchief, lets her natural Irish accent embroider the dialogue. The result is a fiery, full-bloomed Eve. Because she's blamed for the fall of man, and because Miller's script is mostly comic, you could see how a lesser actress might have chosen to portray Eve's initial innocence as dimwittedness, but McDonnell puts a gleam of ambition into her conversations with Lucifer, and in the second act she backs up her "sin" with convincing sorrow. Shane Beeson plays Adam with much the same boyish restlessness he brought to a young Elvis look-alike in Angela Wilson's Black Velvet. He travels a wide, satisfying emotional circle from a guy who just wants to sit around and admire paradise to the weary father whose bellowings for a return to that patriarchal paradise close the play with real impact.

I was less enthralled with Kevin Keating as Lucifer and Jeff Bush as God, for reasons difficult to pinpoint. Of the two, Bush seemed far more suited for his role; the tone of snotty impatience he brought to the Old Testament creator was appropriate, and he was able to carry this effectively into the character's more serious second-act incarnation as an aggrieved, tough-love grandfather. But he had zero chemistry with Keating's Lucifer, who does get the chance to banter with him while the two jockey for position in the minds and hearts of the first family. Keating has done well in broader comic roles, especially ones that involve some degree of smarminess (he excels at characters who have an exceedingly high opinion of themselves). But Miller's portrait of Lucifer, with its pointillist shades of sympathy and conflict, ambition and good intentions, seems to evade Keating. While watching him and Bush together, I couldn't help but wonder what each would bring to the other man's role.

The Creation of the World and Other Business does more than just shake down the book of Genesis for all its omissions, contradictions, and lapses. Miller is a dramatic craftsman of the kind we rarely see any more; he has the chops to answer almost every question he raises, and in this play he does manage to resolve the illogic, caprice, and cruelty into an understanding that God--however you define him, her, or it--isn't so much truth as humanity's desire for truth. Eve makes the best of the world around her, until all her materials are yanked away when one of her sons kills another. Forget explanation; it's her desire for remorse from Cain that becomes her prayer.

The Creation of the World and Other Business runs through May 23. Call (214) 522-PLAY.

Banter
When you're in North Texas discussing Millennium Approaches, the first half of Tony Kushner's wildly praised "gay fantasia" Angels in America, the inevitable comparison has got to be Richard Hamburger's award-winning staging two years ago. But that premiere was by no means the defining production of a play that's been revived over the last three years at regional theaters, colleges, and high schools across the country. Kushner himself told me in an interview two years ago for the opening of Hamburger's staging that his favorite production so far had been a college show put on in a student center's basement.

Referring to Hamburger's staging, director Jim Covault says "our space is very different [from the Kalita Humphreys]." Covault is mounting the Fort Worth premiere of Millennium Approaches inside their marvelous theater-in-the-round space next to Texas Christian University. "And obviously, so is our budget. Those things, to an extent, dictate how we created this show. I read an essay recently that suggested a minimalist approach to Kushner's script might be best. They compared it to Our Town. That's essentially the approach we're taking. "

The essay Covault refers to is contained in a newly published collection of critical pieces, all dedicated to Kushner's two-part epic about race, sex, and religion experienced by a handful of very different people during the Reagan '80s. This book joins what has practically become a cottage industry for critics and academics, who expend an almost religious energy looking at Angels in America from every possible angle.

It's enough to make you feel a little sorry for Kushner, whose new play has just bowed at Houston's Alley Theatre. "I was talking to a playwright the other day," Covault says, "and he claimed he didn't envy Kushner's success. The question 'What do I do now?' is a big one."

But it's also enough to make cynics want to clip the wings of these Angels, who've been fluttering around as if they were the definitive guardians of the gay political voice in American theater.

"In a way, all the stuff that's written about it has done the play a disservice," Covault says. "Some of the essays [in the new book] are just ridiculous. One writer took Kushner to task because there was no Marxist social agenda for change in the play. But I have to say, now that I'm working with the cast, it's pretty amazing the variety of lenses you can use to look at what Kushner's saying. There's very few American plays out there that cover a historical period from so many different angles: the Mormon stuff, the Jewish element, the gay perspective, the conservatism and the race issues. Performing this play really is like performing Shakespeare; you don't realize how everything interconnects until you're in the middle of it."

Covault notes how the unpredictability of Kushner's muse and his wild swings from seriousness to shameless comedy are reflected in the man's political activism; he often voices grassroots outrage with pointed humor.

"I just read a speech he gave before a college, and it was really fabulous. Quite funny. He began by talking about how Congress had earmarked millions in taxes to promote teenage sexual abstinence. He argued that, if conservatives wanted to stop teenagers from having sex, they ought to pour more money into the National Endowment for the Arts. Art was a terrific outlet for unused sexual energy, he said, and he could personally testify to that."

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs through June 6. Call (817)

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