Should You Encourage Your Parents To Take You to See All My Sons When They Come Into the City?

by |
12/09/2008 10:00 AM |

[Short answer: No. The L’s Henry Stewart explains why you should not see Broadway’s Hottest Ticket!, in the below review, which he has cleverly entitled “The Evils of Capitalism, Screamed in Your Ear,” for reasons soon to become apparent.]

Once the lights go down at the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, at the Gerard Shoenfeld Theater through January 11, John Lithgow comes out most nights to peek over the fourth wall and announce the setting — "August of our era." But at a recent performance, he also solicited donations. "Most shows do this at the end," he said. "But after our show, we figured you’re not going to want to hear any speeches." The audience chuckled, but Lithgow’s joke wasn’t about letting the tourists get back to their hotels early. Miller’s play, about fathers and sons and the dark side of capitalism, is stuffed with enough speeches to embarrass a political convention. Any more at the end might fall on deafened ears.

I first read Miller’s 1947 play, among the second-tier in his oeuvre,
in high school; in English class, I once volunteered to read aloud from
it and cheekily screamed its dialogue at the top of my lungs. The cast
of the new quasi-cinematic production, directed by Simon McBurney,
takes the same approach. But they’re not trying to be funny. Should the
folks want to take you to A Show when they come to visit this holiday
season, don’t get suckered into this one because it boasts Katie
Holmes’ much-anticipated Broadway debut; ask to see Harry Potter get
naked instead.

Just after WWII, Joe Keller (Lithgow), a nearing-retirement industrial magnate, his wife Kate (Dianne Weist) and their son Chris (Patrick Wilson) are still coping with the disappearance of Chris’ older brother, Larry, during an air mission in the Pacific several years earlier. Father and son are willing to put it behind them, but Kate, whom Weist plays pitiably with frightened self-delusion, clings to hope, leaving the family in limbo. "We’re like a railroad station waiting for a train," Chris says. Tossed into the mix is Larry’s wife, Ann (Holmes), who has come to visit because Chris hopes to marry her. Ann’s father, Joe’s former partner, is in prison for manufacturing faulty parts for planes used in the war, which killed at least 20 men. Miller slowly leads the audience to believe that Joe may have been culpable as well, though he was exonerated in court.

For much of Act I, Miller explores the wry camaraderie (or hokey wholesomeness) of the Kellers’ backyard community — the local boy tattling on his peer for swearing, the bubbly neighbors dropping by to talk about the newspaper. But Miller sets up this benign American Eden in order to tear it down, exposing the malice that props up what is actually a Sodom.

His strategy couldn’t be more over wrought, starting with the hamhanded symbolism. The night before the action begins, which McBurney unnecessarily chooses to dramatize, a storm takes down a tree, planted in Larry’s memory, in the Kellers’ yard. Not coincidentally, the anniversary of his disappearance is approaching. Lest you miss that a metaphor is afoot, Kate, standing over the felled sapling, tells her husband "there are meanings to these things!" Miller stops short only of instructing the director to drop leaflets from the rafters.

And though no pamphlets fell on my head, nothing gave me the indication that such a gimmick would be beneath McBurney. Rather than tone down the tempestuous text, his production matches its adolescent fervor. Though Wilson, Weist and Lithgow exuded a bit of subtlety and naturalistic composure — their enthusiasm came in waves — the rest of the cast were perpetually turned up to 11. Critics have generally praised Holmes’ performance, but on the night I saw the play she conspicuously tried too hard to display how comfortable she was instead of simply relaxing. She and most of the supporting cast played to the rear mezzanine, shouting their lines with the artificial enthusiasm that keeps young people reared on nothing but Method acting away from the theater. It was as though they were doing Guys and Dolls.

Tom Pye’s bare-bones set — the Kellers’ backyard, empty but for a chair and the diminutive fallen tree, occupies the bulk of the stage — is the only undercooked aspect of the production. But that’s because the actors need the space to charge, dance and literally run around in circles before stopping, like opera stars, at their marks to deliver stationary arias — er, monologues. The over-baked speechifying’s biggest crime is that it doesn’t fit with the characters; it seems unlikely that the Kellers, superficially unremarkable suburbanites, would be so immodest as to be caught screaming in their backyard like common Eye-talians, with the neighbors in such close proximity, always popping in to say hello. Every actor in All My Sons ought to whisper most of their lines.

But perhaps the most offensive part of the new production is how much McBurney struggles to incorporate techniques from film. He uses sound effects — tweeting birds, chirping crickets — to signify that it’s morning and inserts bursts of incidental music during moments of high drama; he adds an echo to the actors’ voices when they recite Important Lines, and even at times projects video footage against the rear wall of the stage. Titles, like "Act II" and "Intermission," are projected as well.

Together, these are nothing but flashy attempts to cinematize the stage, a trend that is beginning to get out of hand, from the largest Disney spectacles to last year’s Frost/Nixon. They appeal to the lowest common denominator, theatergoers who would be bored without loud noises and confused without redundant information. (Alackaday, this is what Broadway has come to — not only was I the only man wearing a tie in a crowd of bejeansed yokels, but an audience member opened a bag of chips during Act III.) Miller didn’t trust the audience to understand his play without screaming its meaning in our ears; McBurney one-ups him, hitting the audience in the face.

The only chance All My Sons has to redeem itself, then, is in its stinging subject matter. As the play unfolds, it explores the relationship between fathers and sons, from the evil things men do to provide for their families to the children inheriting the sins of the father. But above all, Miller’s play is a critique of capitalism, of the profits-over-people philosophy — a theme he explored more effectively two years later in Death of a Salesman. As the play tackles the ubiquity and moral stain of wartime profiteering — "if I go [to jail], half the country’s gotta go," Joe says at one point — the play’s lack of a specific temporal setting becomes significant; you can almost see the Halliburtons in the producers’ eyes.

Suggesting that the American Dream is built atop the bodies of dead boys, Miller is an effective editorial writer, but grand moral speeches do not good drama make. When the drama hits a peak late in Act II, it’s hard to process it as more important than anything that has preceded it — like the last track of an over-compressed Metallica album. Kate ends the show reassuring her boy with a repeated "shhhh." That much-needed direction comes far too late.