Director Miller demands fresh approach to classics

``If we took Neil Simon more seriously, and Eugene O'Neill slightly less, then I think we would actually restore some of the balances of the American theater.'' Jonathan Miller bites off those words with great relish. They are what he told the cast when he first began directing his fast-paced version of O'Neill's tragedy ``Long Day's Journey into Night,'' which got mixed reviews here in Washington before opening on Broadway.

``I think it's a very funny play,'' he continues, ``and I said to them when we first started rehearsals -- I said, `Let's make it as much like Neil Simon as we can.' ''

Dr. Miller, a celebrated British director who began his entertainment career as a member of the antic ``Beyond the Fringe'' comedy quartet, believes in cracking the old molds. Those who have never found O'Neill's Irish-American tragedies amusing may find it startling to hear an audience actually laughing at some of his lines, fast and sharp as arrows.

But even with the imaginative casting of Jack Lemmon as its star, ``Long Day's Journey'' is still a challenge to Miller's approach. It is the American classic that painfully unreels the Tyrone family tragedy, involving alcoholism, the threat of fatal illness, addiction, and the penuriousness of actor-father James Tyrone, which precipitates all their troubles.

In discussing his concept of the ``notion of renewal,'' which he considers important in staging a well-known play, Miller says, ``I suppose I was reacting in some sense against previous productions, which have emphasized the dark dignities of the piece and the poetic drama. And it seemed to me this was a misconception of the genre, of the work. I don't think it's a poetic drama. I don't think it's epic. . . .

``Even if [O'Neill] conceived it as epic, it really is not epic. It goes on for a whole day -- remember it has the traditional Greek tragedy's unity of time and space -- but it's not the house of Atreus; it's not the Agamemnon. And if for some misguided reason O'Neill thought of it as one, he really did misconceive his own best intentions. Because what it is, is a great play, because of the accuracies with which it recaptures the quality of family life.''

And Miller, who has directed the play at march tempo, shortening its length, says, ``People somehow equate the length of time with the greatness of the work.''

Miller is whipping off one-liners with quiet delight in a Washington hotel with a British name on this rather British spring day, with its outbreaks of sun and spatters of rain. He had appeared suddenly in the hotel lobby, padding softly across the marble floor in sneakers -- at 6 feet, 4 inches an impressive man who looked as much like an ex-basketball player for the New York Knicks as an Oxford don. He has a full head of crinkly gray hair, amused brown eyes, a pale face. He is comfortably dressed in a Stuart-plaid shirt, maroon crew-neck pullover, tan pants, and gray Norwegian ski sox with those sneakers.

So much emphasis is usually placed on his rapier wit and iconoclasm in stories that have been written about him that it's surprising to get a glimpse of what a kind and gentle person he is. Five minutes into our interview, a new tape in my recorder suddenly snarled up. While the concierge was dispatched to hunt down another tape, Miller quietly took the cassette in his hands and began working patiently away until he'd unsnarled it, rewound it, and put it in working order.

We laughed and went on with the interview.

``Directing is a very minor art,'' he says. ``It's a most entertaining way of life but not a serious art, compared to writing.''

There is a linkage between Miller's professions as a medical doctor and a theatrical director, though. ``Being a doctor has taught me a lot about directing,'' he says. ``It has taught me a lot about the sort of observation and sensitivity of vision you have to have to be a good director of people, and extremely sensitized to that sort of detail. The skill is transferable. You're doing the same thing: You're reconstructing the manifold of behavior to the point where an audience says, yes, that's exactly like people I know. When people talk about acting being artificial, that's simply a portmanteau term for their seeing something which is not like what they know in real life.''

In real life, Dr. Jonathan Miller plays as many roles as an actor. He has directed a pride of varied plays -- among them ``Merchant of Venice'' at Britain's National Theater with Sir Laurence Olivier and Chekhov's ``The Seagull'' at the Old Vic Theatre. He has also done a BBC series on the history of medicine, ``The Body in Question,'' has produced 12 plays in the BBC's Shakespeare series, directing six of them, has staged more than a dozen operas, from ``The Magic Flute'' to ``Eugene Onegin.'' He lectures at the drop of a notebook. Is there no stopping this man?

Apparently not. He has already done a ``Rigoletto,'' not in traditional Renaissance style, but with a 1950s New York mafia ambience that set off fusillades of protest from Italian-American organizations. He has directed ``Hamlet'' as Grand Guignol farce, and de-prettified Sheridan's ``School for Scandal.'' At one point a BBC critic said he feared Miller might do the BBC Shakespeare series under water.

``No, I don't mean to shock anyone,'' he says. ``I inadvertently shock the ill-informed. My aim is to amuse myself by trying to refresh the view of a play [or an opera]. They're not religious services,'' he says, doing a droll spoof of a theater critic reviewing a high church ritual.

After ``Long Day's Journey,'' he'll go to Florence to do ``Tosca'' with conductor Zubin Mehta. ``I'm putting it into the Rome, 1944, `Open-City' period -- Italian fascism. Should be quite nice.'' He's also scheduled to do ``Tristan and Isolde'' in Los Angeles with Mehta, to make a documentary film for the BBC on medicine and science, then to direct a production of ``The Mikado'' some time this summer. ``I'm basically a butterfly, really. I'll do one thing and then another.''

This one-man cultural explosion was born in London, the son of a psychiatrist father with a deep interest in philosophy and a mother who was both biographer and novelist. He and his wife Rachel, a family doctor, have three children: Tom, William, and Kate.

He read natural sciences at Cambridge and graduated from University College in London as a doctor of medicine. It was during his college vacation that he and three fellow students -- Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennet -- whipped up a comic revue for the Edinburgh Festival. That hit revue, ``Beyond the Fringe,'' launched his theater career. Does he ever miss the Fringe life? ``No, I do all that when I'm directing. I direct through the medium of the joke.''

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