A group of famous—and famously needy and egotistical—performers and creators gathers in the early 1960s to revive their careers by putting on a production whose prospects of success are jeopardized by conflicts with institutional powers and friction among these volatile, creative personalities.

Why, this must be Orson's Shadow, Austin Pendleton’s award-winning 2000 play about two of the world's most celebrated actor-directors, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. In that sparkling play, set in 1960, theater critic Kenneth Tynan brings together Welles and Olivier, as well as Olivier's soon-to-be second wife Joan Plowright, in order to stage Eugene Ionescu's absurdist play Rhinoceros.

Actually, though, this Fertile Ground workshop production is Marilyn/MISFITS/Miller, Portland playwright Rich Rubin's new play that's based on another true story: the 1962 collision of several equally outsized stars of stage and screen. The cast here includes bibulously loquacious director John Huston, closeted screen idol Montgomery Clift, aging erstwhile screen idol (and former Portlander) Clark Gable, legendary character actor Eli Wallach and the biggest star in the world, Marilyn Monroe. And, of course, there’s Monroe's new (and soon to be ex-) husband, playwright Arthur Miller, who's writing the screenplay for a new movie. All involved hope this film will transform Monroe into the Serious Actor she wants to be, instead of the dumb blonde pinup marketed by the studios she makes rich. As shooting proceeds on the aptly named The Misfits, the relationship between the unreliable, often drug-addled Monroe and the misanthropic (as portrayed here) Miller disintegrates, with fatal consequences for their marriage and more. The film turns out to be a misfire that was the last for both Gable and Monroe.

Rubin's frequently witty script crackles with delicious dialogue and smart touches from the very beginning (opening line: "Blackout. End of play."). But it’s burdened by a confusing array of characters (34 roles played by seven actors, including cameo appearances by other notables of the era), a frame narrative (a 2004 production in progress of Miller's last play, Finishing the Picture, which is a barely fictionalized version of, yes, the filming of The Misfits) and a pointless concluding dash of meta-theater, with an actor playing Rubin himself taking the stage for the obligatory end of show "what happened to them all?" It works about as well as Edmund Morris's attempt to insert himself in his biography of Ronald Reagan—i.e. not at all.

With so many levels—a play about the production of a play about the production of a movie about a cast of misfits—and so much going on, it's a wonder (and a tribute to Rubin and director Karen Alexander-Brown) that M/M/M makes as much sense as it does. But as even Rubin acknowledged in the post-show talkback, the ending is a total fail. Moreover, the clunky frame narrative isn't fully fleshed out (fixing that could actually solve the problem of ending the thing), and we never get a clear answer to a crucial question: what do the playwright (and Miller) think of Monroe? Do they consider her an out-of-her-depth climber, or a canny, unfairly repressed late bloomer who could have been so much more? To be fair, it's doubtful that anyone else, including Monroe herself (who died shortly after the events recounted here), ever figured that out either.

It's understandable that Rubin tries to wedge in as many delicious details as possible, but there's so much exposition and so much personality on display that the main conflict, between Miller and Monroe, is muddled.  But the great value of Fertile Ground’s workshop productions is that they allow playwrights to see what works and what doesn't. When Rubin trims some of the attractive distractions, he may wind up with a funny, poignant play that doesn't merely stand in Orson's’ considerable shadow. 

SEE IT: The CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Wednesday, Jan. 29-30. $12 suggested at the door.