When John Lithgow walks out on stage, welcomes everyone to the Schoenfeld Theatre, opens a script, and sets the scene by reading from Arthur Miller‘s stage directions, director Simon McBurney’s message is clear: This isn’t your father’s All My Sons.
His daring, stylish production of Miller’s 1947 drama puts the Kellers — entrepreneur Joe (Lithgow), his high-strung wife, Kate (Dianne Wiest), and their idealistic son Chris (Patrick Wilson) — on display, almost diorama-style. Their solid two-story home is fenced in on both sides for a reason; they live in their own world. Everything they have they owe to Joe’s success building airplane parts during World War II, and everything they are is tainted by his arrest for selling cracked cylinder heads to the U.S. military — 21 pilots were killed and Joe’s partner was convicted. Their scandalous past is the dark cloud that hovers over their neatly landscaped backyard; it’s the vicious storm that uprooted their tree, a living memorial to their presumed-dead — though not by Kate — pilot son Larry. ”The last thing I remember on this block was one word — ‘Murderers!’ Remember that, Kate?” asks Ann (Katie Holmes), the Kellers’ former neighbor, Joe’s now-jailed onetime partner’s daughter, Larry’s ex-fiancée, and Chris’ soon-to-be-wife. Oh, what a tangled web we weave….
Other characters flit in and out — Ann’s eerily intense lawyer brother George (the sensational Christian Camargo), an amateur astrologer (Jordan Gelber) and his simpleton spouse (Danielle Ferland), a morose doctor (Damian Young) and his hen-pecking wife (Becky Ann Baker) — but they exist mostly on the periphery. And when they aren’t required to be in the Kellers’ yard, that’s exactly where McBurney keeps them — on the sides of the stage; all the actors sit, observing the drama, as their own silent Greek chorus. It’s one of the director’s most inspired choices. Also — staging the storm that levels Larry’s sapling, with the dynamite Wiest right in the midst of the meteorological chaos? Heavy-handed, but undeniably powerful.
Yet McBurney’s cinematic approach — underscoring nearly the entire evening with ominous instrumental music, projecting photos onto the back wall — isn’t where this revival falls short; it’s the acting. And I’m not talking about Broadway neophyte Holmes. After a painfully awkward first scene, she relaxes a bit; she’s at her best opposite Wilson, who’s terrifically cast as Sons‘ moral compass. Save Young’s beautifully even-keel MD, the neighbors all seem to be in another show. Gelber (Avenue Q) and Ferland (Into the Woods) may be musical-comedy vets, but a Miller play is no place for mugging. And while Wiest and Lithgow are terrifically well-matched — they costarred on Broadway in 1982’s Beyond Therapy and on screen in 1984’s Footloose — Lithgow ultimately isn’t believable as the blue-collar Keller. He’s every inch the ”business man” Miller describes, but lacks ”the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.” Perhaps he’s been playing fussy, upper-crust roles for too long. Brian Dennehy, whose Death of a Salesman remains so iconic. Anthony LaPaglia, absolutely shattering in A View From the Bridge. Those are Miller men. Lithgow makes a valiant effort, but if we don’t feel Joe’s pain, forgive his tragic flaw, and sympathize with his side of the story, Sons doesn’t have much of a shot. B-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
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