'All My Sons' opens on Broadway

October 17, 2008 8:18:16 AM PDT
It's not about Katie Holmes. Or even John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest or Patrick Wilson, for that matter. The real star of Broadway's chilly, high-concept revival of "All My Sons" is Simon McBurney. He won't for a minute let you forget he is the director of Arthur Miller's post-World War II morality play, which opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

McBurney's vision is grandiose, almost operatic in nature, in which he uses, among other things, a large supporting cast as a kind of accusatory Greek chorus, dramatic lighting, portentous musical underscoring and mostly black-and-white film clips to weigh down the evening with an excess of theatrics.

All these extravagances, not to mention having the actors practically shout their lines, often obscures the language of one of Miller's most timely plays. Corrupt businessmen never go out of fashion, and Joe Keller, the owner of a factory where defective airplane parts were made, is more cowardly than most. He lets his business partner take the fall and go to prison.

There are two stories in "All My Sons" - the public and the private: the public tale of corporate malfeasance, in which young airmen died because of that factory mistake, and the private, in which the guilt over that error destroys a father and his son.

Miller's play may not be totally naturalistic but there is an underlying humanity to both stories that must come out. In McBurney's severely impressionistic production, that humanity is difficult to find. The characters, not to mention the actors, are smothered by all those special effects.

Joe Keller is a precursor to Miller's Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," the playwright's best-known work. He, too, is a glad-hander, a true believer in the American Dream, and Lithgow, a forceful, personable actor, has the man's surface geniality and love of big business down pat.

The show's emotions are pitched at a great height right from the start of the evening, negating the slow, steady climb to devastation that should envelop the man - and the audience - once his terrible secret is out. And it should extend to Keller's idealistic son Chris (Wilson), whose spiritual bereavement at the news must be heartbreaking. Wilson's disillusionment doesn't reach that level of despair.

The play's most manipulative character is the mother, a neurotic woman who steadfastly refuses to admit that her other son (long missing and presumed dead in a wartime air crash) is gone. Wiest's portrait doesn't quite capture the woman's steely determination to avoid the truth or guilt everyone else into going along with her fantasy.

Holmes, the object of much pre-opening interest, is making her Broadway debut in what is an important yet essentially supporting role. But then the play is called "All My Sons" for a reason.

Holmes, playing Chris' fiancee and daughter of the jailed business partner, has a striking physical presence, although not much vocal variety. She may be acting under the constraints of McBurney's direction, which encourages high-voltage pronouncements.

That kind of histrionics is best handled by Christian Camargo as Holmes' avenging brother, a man eager to confront Keller and clear his father's name. It's a role that calls for full-speed-ahead emotionalism, and Camargo supplies the right amount of fire.

Designer Tom Pye's setting of the Keller backyard is eerily spare and surreal, vaguely Magritte-like. A single door, for example, stands center stage, by which the actors enter the unseen, slightly forbidding house. And there's the weighty symbolism of a fallen tree, which topples just as the play begins and sits on stage for the evening's first act - a portent of the human downfall to come.

Miller's play, despite its potent message, is weighed down with enough symbols, not to mention its own awkward melodramatics.

McBurney and company have, unfortunately, added even more of their own.