‘Norma Jeane Baker of Troy’ Theater Review: Ben Whishaw and Renee Fleming Rebury Marilyn Monroe

Anne Carson’s opaque new play with music performs the unique trick of mangling both Euripides and Monroe

norma jeane baker of troy ben whishaw renee fleming
Photo: Stephanie Berger

Poor Marilyn Monroe. What did she ever do to end up the object of such absurd debasement in Anne Carson’s “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” which had its world premiere Tuesday at the Shed, the new cultural center at New York’s Hudson Yards? Carson’s opaque new play with a score by Paul Clark is performed in the Shed’s Griffin Theater, which has the immediate distinction of being one of the least intimate Off Broadway spaces in New York City. It seats only 500 but makes the Little Shubert feel downright cozy.

Now for the other news. I attend close to 200 productions of plays, musicals and operas a year. Never have I seen so many walk-outs in 90 minutes (the running time of “Norma Jeane”) as I did at a preview of Carson’s play. The impatience of the remaining theatergoers resulted in the collective mortal sin of several cellphones being lit up during the performance. Who can blame people for wanting to know when their 90 minutes of purgatory is up?

Carson takes Euripides’s tragedy “Helen” and puts Marilyn Monroe at the center of the battle, even though in “Norma Jeane” neither Helen nor Marilyn ever goes to Troy. “It was a cloud that went to Troy,” we are told. Indeed, men throughout history have had a way of blaming women for everything. Carson’s constant feminist refrain is “It’s a disaster to be a girl.” The line is repeated often as if to blot out Rodgers & Hammerstein’s offensive “I enjoy being a girl.”

Ben Whishaw plays Marilyn/Norma Jeane, or rather he plays a young man in suit and tie (costumes by Sussie Juhlin-Wallen) who dictates a modern update of the Euripides play to a stenographer (Renee Fleming) on New Year’s Eve, 1963. The two of them sit at desks in a very film noir office (set by Alex Eales, the minimal lighting by Anthony Doran) before Whishaw begins to dress up like Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch,” complete with her signature white halter-top dress and ukulele. Ukulele? Maybe Whishaw’s drag persona borrows it from Sugar in “Some Like It Hot,” but then, inconsistency is Carson’s trademark.

Whishaw’s young man first mentions Marilyn in her preproduction days on “Clash by Night” where MGM is helping to wage the battle of Troy — even though RKO released Fritz Lang’s 1952 classic.

Whishaw often dictates that Marilyn “enter as Truman Capote” before imitating that writer’s high-pitched voice. This Marilyn also has a young daughter, Hermione, which is also the name of Helen’s long-lost daughter. Marilyn’s Hermione lives in New York City, and occasionally Pearl Bailey makes an appearance there.

Less clear is a man named Arthur. Is this Arthur Miller? Even though Carson never gives the man’s last name, I assume it is the playwright because Whishaw’s Marilyn tells her psychiatrist that she isn’t attracted to Arthur’s buttocks; they remind her of an Asian boy’s and her shrink is into Asian boys and maybe his (the shrink’s) interest will rub off on her (Monroe) so she’ll then be aroused by her third and final husband (Miller). Why does this strange interlude in “Norma Jeane” bring to mind Arthur Miller? Because in his play “After the Fall” the Monroe character accuses the Miller character of wearing tight pants to show off his butt to attract homosexuals. OK, you think of a better explanation.

Fleming’s stenographer tells us that whenever reporters (male, most likely) did phone interviews with Marilyn, they always asked, “What do you have on?” and she always replied, “Nothing but the radio.” Actually, Marilyn said that once: When asked “what she had on” for the famous nude photo shoot that launched Playboy.

Carson plays slow and loose with the Monroe legend, and in press materials, she connects her subject to the #MeToo movement. #WhatAgain? is more like it. Why the playwright leaves out the Kennedy brothers is anyone’s guess.

Paul Clark has written some bluesy music for Fleming to sing, and she sounds ravishing — that is, when Whishaw’s prerecorded speaking voice isn’t competing with her vocals. Near the end of “Norma Jeane,” Fleming drops her stenographer role and essentially ends up writing the young man’s play. Whishaw’s Marilyn is now too zonked out on pills and champagne to make sense, which had never been the character’s strong suit. Women (Fleming and Carson) are finally telling women’s stories after Euripides, Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Fritz Lang and a drag queen have made such a muck of them.

Whishaw’s imitation of Capote is very convincing. Regarding his Marilyn, she can best be described as Tony Perkins in a blond wig near the end of “Psycho.”

Katie Mitchell directs the mass confusion on stage.