THEATRE / Miller back on form with a losers' tale: The Last Yankee - Young Vic; The Ash Fire - Tricycle; The Set-Up - Gate

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOW would America's founding fathers respond if they could see what posterity has done to their earthly paradise? That is the loaded question Arthur Miller puts in The Last Yankee, and it prompts his best play for a decade. Those who considered Miller a spent force after The Ride Down Mt Morgan must eat their words.

Like much of his late work, it is a guarded, low-key conversation piece sustained by the barest thread of plot. Plot implies that the writer knows what is going to happen. Miller pretends to no such certainty. Dialogue consists of the small change of casual meetings and domestic habit in a seemingly directionless drift, until, in each of the show's four superb performances, it abruptly ignites into powerful feeling, or snaps shut, imprisoning some victim in a verbal gin trap, and bringing the preliminaries into harsh perspective. As when Frick, a businessman, is complaining about soaring labour charges (the oaf who came to replace a shower head was asking dollars 27 an hour) Leroy, his companion, nods sympathetically, before revealing that he is a carpenter and that this is his hourly rate, too. 'Good for you,' Frick grins, swallowing hard as the boomerang hits him.

Meeting in the waiting-room of a state mental hospital where their wives are being treated for clinical depression, the two men begin on neutral ground; but within minutes Frick (David Healy) is totally disoriented by his companion, who dresses like an Ivy League professional, turns out to be an artisan and then emerges as a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton, joint author of the American Constitution. Leroy (Peter Davison) observes this buttery Middle American reeling between class patronage and patriotic respect, and finally voices his rage: to which Frick responds by repeating the scene's opening line, thus solving things for himself by wiping out the conversation as if it had never happened.

After this masterly opening, we meet the wives: poor confused Mrs Frick (Helen Burns) dithering over where to do her shopping when she comes out; and the pill-popping Mrs Hamilton (Zoe Wanamaker) an agitated Swede who has not been shopping for 15 years. One childless, the other with seven children. One crushed by wealth, the other driven frantic by poverty. As between their husbands, a status relationship develops between the hopelessly demoralised Burns and the protectively exasperated Wanamaker, forecasting the end of the play.

In the meantime, this is suppressed by the arrival of the men, which enforces a semblance of normality between the two couples, allowing you to discern their maladies between the lines. Frick, for instance, hardly sees his wife as a human being. He speaks of 'having her in' for maintenance, like an ailing car. Patricia (Wanamaker) has persistently drugged herself against the memory of her brother's suicide and Leroy's lowly wage, while giving him hell at home. The picture steadily emerges of a society whose members feel obscurely cheated and where the very air they breathe is saturated in disappointment. His wife, Frick says, has 'everything she could possibly want', adding in the next breath, 'there's an awful lot of fear around'.

The defect in the play's scheme is that Leroy himself, as the title hero, has to embody the unspoilt aspiration of early America in the kind of domestic situation where everybody is to blame. Miller evades this partly through history. Leroy suffers partly to atone for Yankee injustice to Swedish immigrants. Otherwise any suspicions of dramatic favouritism are burnt up by the truthfulness of the scenes between Davison and Wanamaker, where you see two gentle people tiptoeing over a conjugal minefield, where one false word will detonate a charge of pent-up grievances.

The climax comes when Frick's wife confides her interest in tap-dancing and shyly agrees to perform if her husband will sing along. Turning his back, Healy embarks on 'Swanee River' while the others urge him to look at her. He turns: 'I am looking at her, goddammit]', and the dancer crumples into a fat, demoralised housewife foolishly dressed in black satin shorts and tailcoat. There is no narrative logic in this; but the emotional logic is devastating and it moves you to tears.

Played on a translucent stage floor (by Shelagh Keegan) which alternately anchors the cast to reality and melts under their feet, David Thacker's production likewise couples point-blank precision with an allusiveness that allows the play to expand in time and space. It is the kind of piece that encourages foreign spectators to generalise about America. Miller himself does not editorialise; he tells the tale.

Another promised land comes to grief in Gavin Kostick's The Ash Fire, a piece exploring the theatrically virgin territory of Dublin's Jewish community through the story of a family of illegal Polish immigrants in the 1930s. In the manner of a Hebraic fable, it tells of an orthodox elder brother whose dream of building a new Jerusalem is wrecked by his siblings - one of whom marries an Irish girl and the other, the family schlemiel, puts business before family loyalty. Kostick weakens the force of his plot by displacing its key events; but he presents the two communities with powerful command of character as well as speech styles. Well directed by Jim Culleton, this is an encouraging London debut for the Dublin Pigsback Company.

To describe Kerry Shale's solo performance of The Set-Up, there is no avoiding the term tour de force. Dating from 1929, Joseph Moncure March's verse melodrama celebrates an ageing black boxer's last stand against a pack of crooked New York promoters. Mr Shale, switching instantaneously between Little Italy, the Deep South, and the Mile End Road, does them all. His performance of this piece was electrifying on radio. In the flesh he is even better.

'The Last Yankee', Young Vic (071-928 6363); 'The Ash Fire', Tricycle (071-328 1000); 'The Set-Up', Gate (071-229 0706).