Oedipus & Company
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: October 17, 2008
New York Times
There are four names above the title in the ads for the baleful new Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Three of them are reasonably well known to regular theater- and moviegoers (John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson), and one is very well known to readers of celebrity tabloids (Katie Holmes). But don’t be misled into thinking that these high-profile performers are the stars of the show.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
From left, Patrick Wilson, Dianne Wiest and Katie Holmes in a scene from a new Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 1947 play “All My Sons,” directed by Simon McBurney. More Photos »
Though his face is never seen in the production that opened Thursday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, the British director Simon McBurney might as well be downstage center at all times, stealing each and every scene from his human props. Mr. McBurney, justly celebrated for his brilliant work as the leader of the experimental London company Complicite, is a conceptual theater artist who has never had much use for straightforward, naturalistic acting. And woe betide the thespian who cannot dance to this godlike auteur’s music.
You might wonder why I’m talking like a half-baked imitation of classic tragedy. It is not, as it happens, an inappropriate tone for discussing this intriguing but disconnected interpretation of the 1947 play that made Miller famous. Mr. McBurney has staged Miller’s tale of a self-deluding, guilt-crippled American family with the ritualistic formality and sense of inexorability of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Would that he could summon the primal power associated with those ancients.
It’s not as if Arthur Miller and Greek tragedy have never been seen in the same sentence before. On the contrary, assessing this dramatist’s works according to Aristotle’s “Poetics” has been the province of high school English students as well as scholars and critics since Miller’s 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” (first published in The New York Times), in which he defended the average Joe’s potential as a character of self-sacrificing heroism.
But to bring out this aspect of the play as literally as Mr. McBurney does is to underline not only what’s obvious but also what’s awkward in a work that relies heavily on mechanical plotting and bald speechifying. And to transform its characters into archetypal puppets of destiny is to deprive actors of the chance to create richly human portraits.
I have seen such portraiture in revivals of “All My Sons” from the Roundabout Theater Company (in 1997) and in particular at the National Theater in London (in 2000), productions that had much of the audience in tears. The preview performance I saw of this one left me stone cold, despite some electric moments from a very fine Mr. Lithgow and Mr. Wilson. The very different leading actresses — the stage veteran Ms. Wiest and the neophyte Ms. Holmes, in her Broadway debut — are sad casualties of Mr. McBurney’s high-concept approach. (My companion at the theater, finding herself dry-eyed at the final curtain, asked, “Is there something wrong with my emotional acuity?”)
It’s understandable that producers would think this is an auspicious time to revive “All My Sons,” a heartfelt condemnation of capitalist greed and its concomitant lack of moral responsibility. The plot centers on Joe Keller (Mr. Lithgow), a businessman whose factory was responsible for sending faulty airplane parts overseas, leading to the deaths of American servicemen during World War II. It was Joe’s partner who went to prison for the crime, and now the jailed man’s daughter, Ann Deever (Ms. Holmes), has returned to visit the Kellers.
Once engaged to Joe’s younger son, Larry, a pilot who had gone missing several years earlier on a mission, Ann has been corresponding with Larry’s brother, Chris (Mr. Wilson), and it looks as if a new romance is blooming. This is not to the liking of Kate Keller (Ms. Wiest), who refuses to concede the possibility that Larry is dead. It isn’t just a mother’s possessive love that has brought her to this state of fanatical denial; there are more far-reaching reasons, which emerge in a climactic night of reckoning.
In any production of “All My Sons” a certain unease will be evident from the beginning. But the play’s force lies in Miller’s portrayal of how its characters come to identify and reckon with the sources of this unease, as what initially appears as a sunny small-town idyll turns dark and stormy.
Mr. McBurney’s production, which consistently highlights the implicit in thick strokes, begins with the cast filing onto the set. An actor (Mr. Lithgow) announces the title and author of the play and reads from the script’s directions, à la the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Mr. McBurney sustains this particular distancing device by having the ensemble members sit, within our view, on the sidelines. The production has other ways of reminding us that what we’re watching is a sort of mythic (and artificial) theatrical rite. Tom Pye’s set is a rectangle of green, green grass, with a screen door in the middle, behind which hovers a ghostly Magritte-like image of a house.
Words announcing changes of scene are projected, as is video footage portraying factory assembly lines, soldiers at war and, for the conclusion, that vast sea of humanity (embodied by a contemporary street crowd) whom we must acknowledge as our responsibility. (The projection design is by Finn Ross for Mesmer.)
The leading performers make their entrances and exits glacially, in robotic profile, across the back of the stage. When they speak, they often find themselves competing with anxious, portentous music, which might as well be a floating road sign marked “Doom Ahead.”
Finding a stylized acting approach that matches the dark-gray atmosphere isn’t easy, and few of the cast members succeed. Most of them appear to have been encouraged to go for the sinister, whether the scene asks for it or not. Damian Young, as the Kellers’ neighbor, a disenchanted doctor, and Christian Camargo, as Ann’s angry brother, deliver their big monologues with the half-mad intensity of supporting players in a Vincent Price movie.
Ms. Wiest assumes a glazed demeanor and reproachful stare, becoming Joe’s conscience incarnate or a Cassandra according to Norman Rockwell. (She drops her g’s, Sarah Palin style, to convey Kate’s hometown folksiness.) And while Ann is supposed to arrive at the Keller household with high hopes and good intentions, Ms. Holmes delivers most of her lines with meaningful asperity, italicizing every word. This Ann is straight from the school of the Erinyes (those avenging furies from Greek mythology), and I didn’t believe for a second that she really loved the honorable, naïve Chris.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Lithgow, actors of strong and confident naturalism, come off better, especially in their scenes with each other. In Joe and Chris’s big Oedipal showdown in the second act, these actors powerfully evoke those painful moments when a family quarrel can feel like an earthquake.
It’s the only scene where Mr. McBurney’s shaping concept feels fully justified, where you see how the production might have worked. Mostly this vaunting interpretation falls into that same limbo between intention and execution where so many of Miller’s baffled American souls find themselves.
ALL MY SONS
By Arthur Miller; directed by Simon McBurney; sets and costumes by Tom Pye; lighting by Paul Anderson; sound by Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing; projection design by Finn Ross for Mesmer; wig design by Paul Huntley; associate producers, Cindy Tolan, A. Asnes/A. Zotovich and M. Mills/L. Stevens; production stage manager, Andrea (Spook) Testani; technical supervisor, Nick Schwartz-Hall; company manager, Kimberly Kelley; general manager, Richards/ Climan, Inc. Presented by Eric Falkenstein, Ostar Productions, Barbara H. Freitag, Stephanie P. McClelland, Scott Delman, Roy Furman and Ruth Hendel, in association with Hal Luftig, Jane Bergère and Jamie deRoy. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Through Jan. 11. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
WITH: John Lithgow (Joe Keller), Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller), Katie Holmes (Ann Deever), Becky Ann Baker (Sue Bayliss), Christian Camargo (George Deever), Michael D’Addario (Bert), Danielle Ferland (Lydia Lubey), Jordan Gelber (Frank Lubey) and Damian Young (Dr. Jim Bayliss).