THE LAST YANKEE Play by Arthur Miller. Directed by John Tillinger. At the Manhattan Theatre Club.
YOU'LL find resonances of the great Arthur Miller works in his new play "The Last Yankee," currently running at the Manhattan Theatre Club, but this expanded one-act finds the master dramatist working in a distinctly minor mode.
The play is composed of parts, the first of which was originally presented at the Ensemble Studio Theatre's One-Act Play marathon. Set in the waiting room of a state mental hospital, it features an encounter between two men who are waiting to see their wives, who are patients at the facility. Leroy (John Heard) is a carpenter, the affable father of a large brood of children, and a direct descendent of Alexander Hamilton. John (Tom Aldredge) is older, a successful businessman with a forceful personality. Discussing their respective situations, they seek to understand the common link between them that might have brought their wives to the same place.
There is no common ground. The men are as different as could be, creating a confrontation that causes even the sweet-natured Leroy to lose his temper.
The difference between the two men is spotlighted by the reasons for their wives being in a state institution rather than a private one; Leroy can't afford anything better and has too much pride to accept other people's money. John knows that the private facility is first class; he has the money but doesn't want to spend it.
Miller's dialogue rings true, and he provides vivid characterizations that are drawn with economical strokes, aided by excellent performances by Heard and Aldredge. It is in the play's second part, in which we meet the wives, that the writing falters. Despite the best efforts of Frances Conroy, as Patricia, Leroy's wife, and Rose Gregorio as Karen, John's wife, we never come to understand what makes these women tick. This is particularly true of Karen, the older woman, who at one point is reduced to doin g a ludicrous tap dance. John reacts with particular disgust, and presumably we are supposed to identify his lack of sensitivity as one of the reasons for his wife's mental decline. But watching Karen chirping merrily away, it is hard not to empathize with him.
LEROY, on the other hand, is nothing if not sensitive, and even shows a willingness to change. After years of haranguing from Patricia, he is finally beginning to show some ambition and ask for the kind of money he thinks he is worth. Patricia has made progress and is ready to return home; Karen clearly has not. We are meant to appraise the women's contrasting conditions by their husband's characters. But we learn nothing more about the men in the second part than we did in the more tightly written first
Although her character never loses her composure, Frances Conroy vividly conveys the torrents of feeling being repressed. Rose Gregorio is effective as the sweetly befuddled Karen, and there is an inexplicable cameo by Charlotte Maier as another patient.
The technical aspects of the production are simple yet effective, and director John Tillinger again proves his talent for working with actors. "The Last Yankee" is a thoughtful and sometimes moving piece, but it could use some of the Miller bombast of yore.