Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Patrick Wilson, left, Katie Holmes and Christian Camargo in 'All My Sons.' (Photo by Joan Marcus) Click here to enlarge.

NEW YORK – Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," currently being revived on Broadway, was written in 1947 and was Miller's first success. An earlier play, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," lasted only a few performances; a mere two years later, in 1949, he would write his masterwork "Death of a Salesman."

"All My Sons" centers around Joe Keller (John Lithgow), a successful midwestern manufacturer of airline parts during World War II, who knowingly sends defective cylinder heads to the Army, which results in the deaths of 24 young airmen. At the trial, he betrays his business partner, who lands in jail, but saves himself and his company. Late in the play, further proof of Keller’' guilt surfaces when it is revealed that one of his sons, reported missing, actually killed himself when he learned of his father’s deeds. With "All My Sons," Mr. Miller attempted a modern Greek tragedy set in an American backyard.

This new production of "All My Sons" doesn't come off as effectively as it should, and I'm afraid the fault lies with British director Simon McBurney's approach. In 1983, Mr. McBurney cofounded the avant-garde theater troupe "Complicite," which has previously presented in New York an iconoclastic take on Ionesco's absurdist play, "The Chairs," and the original "Mnemonic," a fascinating theatrical multimedia exploration of memory.

Here, Mr. McBurney's apparent intention with "All My Sons" is not to present Miller's play literally or conventionally, but rather to dispense with the reality of the work. Even before the play begins, he assembles the cast on stage and has Mr. Lithgow step forward to address the audience directly, thus breaking the theater's fourth wall. By doing away from the get-go with all sense of naturalism, Mr. McBurney undermines the audience's involvement with Mr. Miller's deftly drawn characters. In addition to that, he also unnecessarily uses cinematic musical underscoring for some scenes and flashes video projections onto Tom Pye's minimalistic set to heighten the play's melodrama.

The actors, some of the best the American theater can offer, mostly survive Mr. McBurney's dicey concept. Mr. Lithgow plays Joe Keller as a folksy small-town father at one moment and a raging, despondent King Lear the next. Dianne Wiest impresses in the difficult role of his wife, who cannot accept her son's death. Patrick Wilson could not be better as the surviving son who will not tolerate his father's ill deeds. Even the young Katie Holmes, of "Dawson's Creek" fame and wife of Hollywood film actor Tom Cruise, here making her New York stage debut, does well most of the time in the role of the dead brother's fiancée.

Yet, in the end, one tends to leave this "All My Sons" admiring the sturdiness of Miller's playwriting and the acting of its stalwart players, rather than being emotionally moved by the Keller family's tragic story.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.