Thursday, April 25, 2019

220 (2018-2019): Review: ALL MY SONS

“Crime and Punishment”

(Note: this review is followed by the entry on All My Sons from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950. It includes a plot summary.) 

 The third Broadway revival (after those of 1987 and 2008) of Arthur Miller’s 1947 All My Sons, directed by Jack O’Brien for the Roundabout Theatre Company, is moderately effective, with strong histrionics from its three leads, but never fully rises to the occasion. Miller’s play resonates with contemporary relevance (think capitalistic excess, faulty airplane issues, and “exoneration”) but, at least in this version, seems more dated, wordy, and melodramatically contrived than ever. 
 And then there’s that darned casting controversy.

For those unfamiliar with it, All My Sons takes place in 1947 in small-town Ohio, and is not at all concerned with racial issues. Its tale of the corruption of the American dream by capitalist greed focuses on the Keller family, Joe (Tracy Letts, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), who owns a manufacturing plant; his wife, Kate (Annette Bening, Coastal Disturbances); and their son, Chris (Benjamin Walker, American Psycho). Another son, Larry, was killed during World War II. 

Much of the plot concerns the relationship between the Kellers and the Deevers. Steve Deever, Joe’s partner, took the rap for the defective airplane parts produced by his and Joe’s company, which led to the deaths of 21 men.

Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini), the late Larry’s girlfriend, comes from New York to the Keller home at the invitation of Chris, who wants to marry her. Kate, obsessed with the idea that Larry might still be alive, is adamantly opposed to the idea. Later, Ann’s brother, George (Hampton Fluker), arrives, seeking to castigate Joe for his responsibility in the crime that sent his father, Steve, to prison. (Additional plot details are below.)

Gregory Mosher, the revival’s first director, wanted to cast African-American actors in the roles of Ann and George Deever, a nod to Broadway’s increasingly frequent practice of colorblind casting. Miller’s daughter, Rebecca, in charge of the family estate, refused, stating, “I wanted to be sure the concept held water historically and thematically," adding that such casting “was in danger of white-washing the racism of 1947 suburban Ohio.”

Mosher quit, O’Brien was hired, and, in a twist even weirder than Mosher’s plan, an African-American actress, Chinasa Ogbuagu, was hired to play Sue Bayliss, wife of the Kellers’ neighbor, Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden). Moreover, the white Ann’s brother, George, was cast with the African-American Fluker (just nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Best Supporting Actor in a Play).

This production has gone mega in its attention to realistic detail, with period-authentic costumes, down to the women’s seamed stockings, by Jane Greenwood and an ultrarealistic outdoor setting by Doug Schmidt (beautifully lit by Natasha Katz) showing the rear of the Kellers’ home, its backyard, and the back of an adjoining house. It’s the kind of set you may find yourself inspecting for telltale hints of artificiality, like the material used to create the grass lawn. In other words, its visual foundation is illusionistic, seeking, like a movie, to be as close to reality as possible.

So, regardless of where you are on the racial spectrum, and what you may think of colorblind casting, you can’t be blind to Sue’s race when she enters. When you should be attending to the dialogue, you are instead spinning rationales for why everyone takes for granted that a black woman is married to a white doctor in suburban Ohio in 1947. Sue’s role is small so you soon ignore it. However, you’re going to be taken even further aback when George, whose role is much more substantial, enters. 
This is too big an issue, with too many qualifications, to elaborate on here, but my own position is that colorblind casting must be used within reason and not when it becomes a distraction that steals focus from what you should be watching and breaks whatever illusion a play is striving for. With a few exceptions (Denzel Washington in The Iceman Cometh, perhaps), what generally works in classic dramas and musicals doesn’t so easily pass inspection in straight plays set in particular, racially sensitive times and places.
There’s still much power in Miller’s dialogue, especially when Bening, Letts, and Walker pull all the stops out in the third act. The emotional storm and stress reaches hurricane levels but, because the situations seem so carefully manufactured, including the last-minute revelations in a letter Ann produces, it fails to truly break your heart.

Bening brings striking, almost neurotic intensity to her maternal refusal to accept that her son is dead. Letts offers a range of emotional expressiveness, from avuncular pal to guilt-ridden malefactor. And Walker’s acting palette allows him to be believably shy, romantic, idealistic, and volcanically angry.
None of the other cast members is more than satisfactory, including Carpanini, whose performance as Ann lacks both variety and depth. This partly explains why, when a clearly moved reviewer asked as we left the theatre, “Didn’t that take your breath away?” I had to answer, “Not so much.”

American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 23


The following is an edited essay on the original 1947 production of All My Sons from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950.

All My Sons Author: Arthur Miller; Director: Elia Kazan; Sets/Lighting: Mordecai Gorelik; Costumes: Paul Morrison; Producer: Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, and Walter Fried i/a/w Herbert H. Harris; Theatre: Coronet Theatre; opening, January 29, 1947; performances: 328.

This bombshell of a thesis drama represented Arthur Miller’s first success. He was immediately heralded as a great white hope of the American theatre by some, while others had serious reservations. It was selected as the best American play of the season by the Drama Critics Circle and was one of Burns Mantle’s Ten Best. Miller was inspired to write his play when learned during the war of the true story of a war profiteer’s daughter who, despite her love for her father, had exposed him and then left home. Its original title had been The Sign of the Archer.

Set in the backyard of the Keller home in a small, Ohio town and transpiring on a single Sunday, it pictures the Keller family of Joe (Ed Begley), son Chris (Arthur Kennedy), and mother Kate (Beth Merrill). Larry, another son, has died in the war, although Kate finds this hard to accept and keeps believing that he is alive. Chris, a former army captain now in business with Joe, is in love with Larry’s bereaved fiancée, Ann Deever (Lois Wheeler), but Kate opposes the match.

It soon develops that Joe may have escaped imprisonment for the manufacture and sale to the air force of defective airplane cylinders, a crime that led to the deaths of 21 flyers. Joe’s betrayed partner, Steve—Ann’s father—took the rap for the deed and went to jail. When the truth—revealed in Larry’s last letter to Ann—comes out, Joe claims not only that he had placed loyalty to his family—for whom he had to provide a living—ahead of patriotism but that he was driven by the profit motive.

The idealistic Chris—previously convinced of Joe’s innocence—confronts him in horror at the revelation. Joe discovers that Larry, racked by guilt when he learned of his father’s complicity, killed himself. Joe realizes that “in sinning against other men’s sons, he has sinned against his own,” as Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt put it in Catholic World, and deals with his moral irresponsibility by shooting himself.

Some believed that the Ibsenesque play’s dialogue was biting and authentic, its characters sharply individualized, its structure dramaturgically sound and lifelike, and its theme of vast significance. Brooks Atkinson of the Times hailed the new arrival, saying that Miller “brings something fresh and exciting into the drama. . . . It is a pitiless analysis of character that gathers momentum all evening and explodes with both logic and dramatic impact.” “It has an urgency,” wrote Rosamund Gilder in Theatre Arts Monthly, “an originality that augurs well for [Miller’s] future . . . for he sets authentic characters in a situation that is sharply individual yet broad and vitally important in its implications. To Ward Morehouse of the New York Sun, the complexly plotted play was “occasionally . . . fitful and spasmodic,” but when dealing with its central issue had “extraordinary poignancy and power.”

But George Jean Nathan, in the New York Journal American, was unimpressed, believing the theme familiar and the treatment equally conventional. “It seems to me to be just another in the line of exhibits which misses out because it says what we already all too well know in a manner we already know as well, and in terms and language that are undistinguished.” Howard Barnes in the Herald Tribune reported that Miller “has an acute feeling for theater and a certain sense of form, but he has not blended them in a satisfactory drama.” He felt the characters were more like puppets than self-motivated personages and that much of the action was contrived.

The production itself was lauded by most for its pulsing direction and vividly intelligent and emotional acting, especially that of Merrill, Begley, and Kennedy. Expert work also came from Karl Malden (as George Deever), John McGovern, Peggy Meredith, and Eugene Steiner.

According to Kazan’s Elia Kazan: A Life, coproducer Clurman himself had wanted to direct the play and was very upset when Miller chose Kazan. This led to what Kazan called abominable behavior by Clurman at rehearsals. “His discipline . . . was that of a naughty child.” Clurman would sit with a secretary, presumably giving notes, but laughing and talking loud enough for others to hear, or would be dallying sexually with another woman at his side. In these and other ways he made his presence unbearable for Kazan.

Clurman also kept insisting to Kazan that the character of Mrs. Keller be made responsible for part of Keller’s guilt, although Kazan resisted these suggestions. Kazan said Miller was influenced by them and tried rewriting the part, only to give up the attempt. However, in Timebends, Miller’s autobiography, the playwright disclosed his belief that Mrs. Keller definitely shares her husband’s guilt.

That year was the first for the Tony Awards, and Kazan won as best director.