Not-too-deep ‘Blues’

His first Broadway production was The Man Who Had All the Luck in 1944. Arthur Miller’s other plays include All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), A View From the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964) and Broken Glass (1994).

At 88, Miller has a new play, now at the Wilma Theater, that raises the question: Is the playwright still a creative force in this industry?

Resurrection Blues is aimed at the materialist maladies of modern America. This is not the searching analyst of social issues and moral dilemmas we know from Miller’s previous plays. His earlier works bore serious messages in a dramatic style. Here Miller’s vision of unrelieved moral bankruptcy is couched in satire.

The approach is not unique. With a unique mix of humor and contempt, satire has taken countless forms over time, continually delivering a message of moral or political reform.

Resurrection Blues is set in a banana republic teetering on the brink of anarchy in which greed has been allowed to fester and infect the body politic. It’s clear from the outset that this unidentified nation is meant as a parody of modern America, and Miller misses no opportunity to indict the moral vacuity of its citizenry in the sternest terms.

Miller’s new play is conceived in a darkly comic vein; he uses the license of age to mock the greed, materialism and cupidity that he sees all around him. In his fictional Latin American country, there is a staggering gulf between rich and poor, with 2 percent of the population owning 96 percent of the wealth. It’s not a far cry from America itself, where, two years ago, 1 percent of the people owned 40 percent of the nation’s assets.

Miller also lays into the crassness of commercial television, where a crucifixion would be interspersed with ads for failing hair, gum disease and crotch itch.

The play is based, like all good satire, on a moral positive: a belief in humanity’s essential worth and the need to banish the corrupting notion of money as the measure of all things.

It also scores a topical bulls’-eye. At a time of swelling imperialism, it was instructive to hear an ad executive’s assertion that "I will not superimpose American mores on a dignified foreign people." And, with the war in Iraq, it was salutary to be reminded that the Vietnam War was triggered by a reported night attack on an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which, we now know, never happened.

Resurrection Blues takes inspiration from a New York Times op-ed piece Miller penned in 1992 in which he modestly proposed selling tickets to public executions at Shea Stadium. This was in the same vein as Billy Tourtelot’s band — Hell on Earth — which last week scheduled a public suicide to be performed during its St. Petersburg, Fla., concert.

The play’s plot turns on the possible execution — by crucifixion — of a revolutionary who fancies himself the Messiah. A dishonest American advertising agency has contracted with the country’s dictator, Gen. Felix Barriaux, to simulcast the event with commercial breaks.

Henri, a wealthy landowner, serves as the play’s voice of conscience; aside from being in bad taste, he argues, the crucifixion could incite a peasant rebellion, thus driving down property values. "Shooting doesn’t work," counters the unimpressed general. "People are shot every 10 minutes on TV."

By design, all of the characters are gross caricatures — and crudely drawn ones at that. The players in this comedy work hard at finding the balance between seriousness and satire. They do a reasonable job of navigating between realism one moment and farce the next, but Miller himself is not able to reconcile these conflicting elements.

Partly because Blues is steeped in realism, you want to talk about Miller’s characterization, but the characters seem like glib pop-psychology concoctions.

Nor is there much in the Wilma’s production to excite the eye. The set by David P. Gordon is spartan and unimpressive.

Resurrection Blues
Wilma Theater
Broad and Spruce streets
Through Oct. 26
Tickets: $9-$50