'All My Sons' retains its postwar power

Posted: October 18, 2008

NEW YORK — Oddly and painfully timely, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, written in 1947, concerns the struggle between conscience and money. It shows how dangerous the self-interest of businessmen can be - in case we need reminding. Call it corny, self-righteous, overplotted or preachy, the play has withstood critical abuse because it works, and this new, starry production is moving and satisfying, emotionally and theatrically.

Its plot concerns Joe Keller (John Lithgow), a man who sold defective airplane parts to the government, an act that saved his business and killed 21 young pilots. (Imagine All My Sons' impact when it first opened on Broadway, so soon after World War II ended.)

Joe expects his son Chris (Patrick Wilson) to take over the business he so ruthlessly built, because his second son, Larry, never returned from the war. Their mother (Dianne Wiest) refuses to believe that Larry - missing for three years - is dead, so when Chris wants to marry Ann (Katie Holmes, who, yes, holds her own), the girl next door and Larry's fiancee, she does everything she can to prevent it. Ann's father, Joe's former business partner, is in prison, punished for the crime while Joe was exonerated.

Lithgow, working against type (he's cast most often in brainy, effete roles), powerfully portrays an uneducated man struggling to understand the huge error he has based his life on. Wilson's open face and sickly smiles reveal Chris' struggle not to understand what he already half knows. Their violent showdown, full of grief and rage, is shattering.

Simon McBurney, being British and experimental, is the least likely director for this very American and traditionally realistic play. Miller's set directions specify the Keller backyard in minute detail, emphasizing its "secluded atmosphere," but every aspect of McBurney's production - the set, the sound, the lighting - denies cozy safety. McBurney gives us a freestanding screen door on a vast expanse of artificial turf, while huge cinematic projections on the too-tall wooden back wall show us the memories and feelings of Ann and Joe and Chris during their major speeches. But yet there is the grape juice, in perfect 1940s glasses.

The neighbors represent different approaches to life: the disappointed doctor (Damian Young is especially good) who believes in nothing, the exuberant Frank (Jordan Gelber) who believes in everything, the carping wife (Becky Ann Baker), the jolly wife (Danielle Ferland), and Ann's conflicted and distraught brother George (Christian Camargo), another man damaged by the war.

To say the excellent cast works as an ensemble is to misrepresent the needs of the play. All My Sons explores the very opposite of ensemble; it's about what Miller called "unrelatedness," the belief that human responsibility stops at the edge of your backyard.

All My Sons

Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Tickets $61.50-116.50. Information: www.AllMySonsOnBroadway.com or telecharge, 212-239-6200.

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