You only have to be alive and concerned to realize how topical and relevant “All My Sons” is. It is 61 years since Arthur Miller’s play was decried as Communistic and a blatant undermining of the American business ethos. Whether the accusations and allegations have been proved by the passage of time to be either misguided, arguable, or on the money certainly depends upon how you view our current political and social climate. A newly envisioned production has opened on Broadway with a stellar cast, under the direction of Simon McBurney. While I may take some exception to McBurney’s approach to the play that won the Tony Award for the author in 1947, I have nothing but praise for the cast that includes Katie Holmes, the film star who is making her Broadway debut.
Miller’s story of how a ruthless and reckless business decision, one that allowed defective cylinder heads to be delivered to the Army and thereby causing the death of 21 pilots, appears to grow more timeless with each year.
Notwithstanding McBurney’s reputation as an innovative and influential director and as the artistic director of the internationally acclaimed company Complicite, he has embellished the play with a few adornments that are mostly either distractions or irritants.
The use of mood music or sound design as it is credited to Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing only serves to neutralize the potency of a scene and in particular Arthur Miller’s pungent dialogue. In some instances, sound is even used to punctuate a line. Talk about indicating. Other staging conceits that work against the effectiveness of this classic drama is having the cast visible in the wings awaiting their cues, having them dress the stage with props and otherwise destroying a reality that might better serve a play by Pirandello. Otherwise the sound of roaring planes and projected visuals only diminish the powerful imagery that is already inherent in the script. And the play’s final moments, powerful in its heartbreaking simplicity, have been gussied up with bathos.
It is to the performers, however, that the theatrical effectiveness of this production belongs. While the action that affects the lives of two entwined families is dramatized in a simple way, the play gains immeasurably by the high level of acting. For the most part, this production is buoyed by vital, vibrant intensity that rarely lets up within this logical but terrifying conscience-stretching conflict. While the play has always had an indivisible clarity of purpose, the moral-driven diatribes seem more than ever to reflect the revitalized ethics that promise change in our era.
At the forefront of the drama is the dynamic performance of John Lithgow, who seems to have connected completely with the complexly conflicted conscience that motivates Joe Keller, the manufacturer who has not only committed perjury to avoid a jail sentence, but also has allowed his innocent business partner to take the rap. One remains rapt in the way Lithgow boldly maneuvers the precarious curves that take Joe from a lazy, good-humored facade to one that visibly festers. You may find yourself shaken in the scene in which Joe is forced to face the crippling fraudulence of his act, an act to which his own son fell victim. The much lauded Lithgow, who has reached a considerable number of peaks on TV as well as on Broadway, can consider Joe Keller among the finest of his roles.
Patrick Wilson is splendid as Chris Keller, the older son who has fallen in love with his dead brother’s fiancee. Wilson, a good-looking, personable, and versatile actor, ignites the drama, shifting gears from innocence to strength to disillusionment, and in particular in a physical confrontation with his father that produced gasps from the audience.
Holmes is certainly considered to be an asset at the box-office, but she is a decided asset to play Anne Deever, the very pretty fiancee who must face the combined anxieties in regard to her jailed father, her love for Chris, and the disapproving presence of Mrs. Keller (Dianne Wiest).
Wiest, as you might expect, is astonishing and often poignant in the role of the neurotic Kate Keller, a woman who remains a shield to her tortured husband even as the arrows of truth are set to pierce for the kill. Wiest, an actor who can be depended upon to bring a new and revitalizing insight into a role that has become familiar (“The Seagull”) is a devastating mixture of tenderness and toughness. Christian Camargo is also excellent as George Deever, Anne’s embittered lawyer brother. He energizes his scene as a bundle of nerves and barely contained fury.
Among the neighbors, Becky Ann Baker is excellent as Sue Bayliss, the bossy wife of doctor Jim Bayliss (fine performance by Damian Young). I got a kick out of Danielle Ferland, who seems to be impersonating Betty Hutton, as another giddy neighbor, Lydia Lubey. Scenic designer Tom Pye chose an abstract setting to depict the back yard of the Keller’s home, its outline no more than a shadow with only a real and functional door, a chain link fence, and an uprooted tree. An overhanging branch of a poplar tree is a nice touch. Paul Anderson’s dramatic lighting fulfills its mission.
As you watch this drama unfold, about people who are suddenly made to deal with that tragedy, you will be hard pressed not to also think about the profiteering Halliburton Corporation, the company that has been over-charging the government for fuel and meals, when you hear George express his father’s sentiments: “He’d like to take any man who made money during the war and put him up against the wall.” ***
“All My Sons,” limited engagement through January 11, Gerard Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. $66.60 to $116.50. 212-239-6200.