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Theater Review (NYC): All My Sons by Arthur Miller

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Before the intermission of All My Sons, the insistent underscore music and occasional movies projected on the rear wall were merely distracting. During the second and third acts, though, they became positively maddening.

Rather than helping me focus on the members of Arthur Miller’s fracturing family, or the present-day parallels to these late 1940s Americans trying like hell to amnesiate themselves about the war they had just fought, the music and the largely irrelevant visuals instead had me posing a series of questions during this revival of Miller’s 1947 play, a success that had paved the way for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible a few years later:

  1. Does director Simon McBurney not trust Miller’s language to tell the story? Does he really have to project shots of mechanical gears as the characters recount the shipping of faulty airplane parts that caused 21 World War II pilots to crash?
  2. If he doesn’t trust the play’s language, why did he hire excellent actors to speak Miller's words, like John Lithgow as Joe Keller, the possibly culpable parts manufacturer, Dianne Wiest as his seemingly delusional but actually clear-eyed wife Kate, and Patrick Wilson as their born-to-be-disillusioned son Chris?
  3. Is McBurney simply so enchanted with the technology available to today’s Broadway directors, or is the “muscle” in this production really sound designers Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing and projection designer Finn Ross for Mesmer? And were the actors body-miked simply so we could hear at least some of those words above the music and sound effects?
  4. Do McBurney and his designers feel they need to “cue” the audience when a major revelation is taking place or a scene is reaching its emotional climax?

(See end of review for possible answers to these questions.*)

It’s somewhat understandable that McBurney would want to jazz up Miller’s angry, naturalistic drama, which is constantly threatening to explode into Angry, almost campy Melodrama—complete with the Conveniently Expository Big-Mouthed Neighbor, the third-act Letter That Explains Everything and the Offstage Pistol Shot.

At this stage in his career, Miller was still trying to finesse his symbols and overt messages into the grain of a naturalistic, fourth-wall, well-made play. His leap forward with Death of a Salesman (with the help of director Elia Kazan) was to expand drama’s perimeter—and its tolerance for a bit of strangeness—far enough so that the symbols seemed to be part of the landscape, and the melodrama less an author’s trickery and more a plausible response to the play’s big themes. (Kazan’s work with the other post-war playwriting giant, Tennessee Williams, whose poetic, symbol-strewn Streetcar Named Desire is also from this period, probably helped Miller and Kazan add some magic to Broadway’s realism.)

But despite its lumpiness and the sometimes two-dimensional approach to its characters, I suspect All My Sons is still best served plain, with as few distractions as possible. It’s not a subtle play, but its conflicts are constantly relevant: Are individuals responsible only to their families, or do they share a wider responsibility to their country and to humanity in general? What’s the right thing to do when doing the “right” thing means bankruptcy and jail, while the “wrong” thing is only a teensy bit worse than what everybody else is doing? If fathers compromise themselves trying to create a legacy for their sons, shouldn’t those fathers get at least loyalty in return?

These are tough questions, and the preview audience I saw the play with was paying close attention—or as close as they could given the distractions. These included steadily building music during several key scenes. (Some of it sounded like the first few otherworldly notes of the original Star Trek theme, before Kirk says “Space, the final frontier”).

McBurney and his designers, including lighting designer Paul Anderson, also shortchange us visually. The third act, which takes place at 2 AM in the Kellers’ backyard, includes a detailed projection of the night sky, complete with slow-moving clouds along the back wall. I’m not against projections per se—they were one of the strong points of the 2008 Patrick Stewart Macbeth. But if you have to dim the lights on the actors during that crucial third act just so the stars shine more brightly behind them, it bothers me. I want to see Dianne Wiest’s face as she learns the truth about her pilot son, who she stubbornly believes will return hale and hearty despite being Missing in Action for many long years. I want to see John Lithgow’s face as his self-certainty crumbles. Yes, it’s “actually” dark at 2 AM, but if these characters can yell at the top of their lungs without waking the neighbors in the dead of night, I can forgive the “unreality” of a few spotlights.

The distractions are doubly and triply frustrating because Lithgow is giving his usual strong performance as Joe Keller, while Wiest is making Kate’s seemingly simple emotions and complex motivations beautifully transparent to the audience—even as she hides them behind bountiful maternal love spread to everyone else on stage. Kate is a tyrant who uses the weapons of kindness, optimism, and her seeming weakness to flatter, and then flatten, friends and enemies alike. She is the inverse of the abuse-spewing matriarch of August: Osage County, playing across the street, but both characters pay for their clear-eyed strength by ending the play alone onstage.

As Chris, the Keller son who did return from the war and is eager to marry his dead brother’s sweetheart, Ann Deever (Katie Holmes), Wilson creates a compelling character out of Miller’s idealistic attitudes. Wilson may have the same career problem that Paul Newman had (the actors dedicated their performance to the just-deceased Newman the night I saw the show). He is possibly too good-looking—corn-fed and well-built—to be taken completely seriously as an actor, but he has done rich, subtle work on TV (Angels in America) and on film (Little Children). He even survived the horrifyingly bad musical version of Bright Lights, Big City done at New York Theatre Workshop several years ago, so with luck he may mimic Newman’s longevity in precarious show business.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much of anything about Ms. Holmes, who is making her Broadway debut in this revival after good if mostly unexceptional work on large and small screens. Ann is a pivotal role (she is not only the dead brother’s sweetheart but, in the too-convenient Miller plotting, the daughter of Joe’s business partner, who took the rap and went to jail for delivering the faulty airplane parts but is now trying to clear his name). Holmes isn’t bad, but she’s playing well over her skill level, with some real pros on stage with her to highlight the difference.

Perhaps by the time the play officially opens director McBurney will have helped her vary the rhythm and tone of her line readings. She may also learn to listen to the other actors (she exhibits almost no reaction when Becky Ann Baker, as the aforementioned Nosy Neighbor, rips her a new one); to dial down her vocal volume overall so that she has room to get louder as her character’s confidence begins to crack; and to walk more like a young woman of the 1940s and less like a little girl playing dress-up.

However, I’d be happy if McBurney spent less time with Holmes and more time toning down, or eliminating, the soundtrack. He could also simplify some of the busy staging. Miller is a powerful enough writer to create drama simply by having people stand on stage, look at each other, and say the lines. More trust in him—and in the audience—would let us ponder why wars bring out the very best and the very worst in all of us.

*My guesses, and those of my partner Noel, a director himself, are: 1) Probably he doesn’t trust the language, and no, the projections are unnecessary; 2) Who knows, but thank goodness the music isn’t on every single minute; 3) Either or both are possible, and unfortunately body miking is not unique to this production; and 4) We hope not.

 All My Sons is playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York City.

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