McBurney’s Ego Upstages Miller, Lithgow, Wiest—Even Katie Holmes

A conscience play about a businessman who during World War II knowingly ships defective airplane parts that kill 21 U.S. pilots—including, possibly, his own son—it prefigures Miller’s major themes: the unraveling of the American Dream and the moral bankruptcy of free enterprise; personal responsibility and business ethics; duty to family and public accountability; and the tragedy of love and vast disappointment that exists between fathers and sons.

Miller’s profoundly human dramas will always touch our hearts, whatever their imperfections. But not this production. Nor could a play about the dishonor of immoral business practices and greed be more relevant today. “You’re a boy, what could I do? I’m in business!” the crooked Joe Keller justifies himself to his broken-hearted younger son, Chris. “A man is in business. … You lay 40 years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take 40 years, let them take my life away?”

 

ARTHUR MILLER WASN’T a complicated man. The comparisons he made between his own plays and Greek drama and Ibsen weren’t entirely warranted, but Mr. McBurney has compounded the pretension. He brings on silent crowds from the wings to represent ominous Fate, or The People (I assume). In the closing scene of Act I, they enter solemnly carrying chairs. Why chairs? Since Mr. McBurney directed Ionesco’s The Chairs a decade ago, they’ve become his trademark.

The set designer Tom Pye (who made the shtetl in the 2004 revival of The Fiddler on the Roof look like the tree-lined foyer of a Marriott Hotel) has created a neutral, Magrittish abstraction for All My Sons, with a bright green grass rectangle and a screen door in front of a characterless, giant back wall. It’s an attempt to make Miller’s intimate “porch play” seem epic in a distancing Brechtian style. That’s why the offstage actors can be seen seated in the wings watching the play.

Brecht’s political theater of cool detachment is directly at odds with Miller’s emotional candor. Mr. McBurney has nevertheless underlined and heavily italicized every conceivable message and big speech in All My Sons, as if staging the play for idiots. That back wall doubles as a video scrim, dominating and dwarfing the actors onstage like a giant movie screen.

In case you don’t know what one looks like, mention of the Keller factory is accompanied by grainy video of stock footage of a factory assembly line. Mention of the war brings up video of soldiers on the march; same thing for warplanes flying missions. Ominous dark clouds appear for the really dramatic scenes.

There’s scarcely a scene all night that isn’t accompanied, underscored or drowned by mood music. Small wonder the performers are miked (though it doesn’t stop them shouting to be heard). Lest we miss Mr. McBurney’s already thudding point, when someone screams—or wails—the cries echo through the auditorium.

The expression that nothing is as old-fashioned as the avant-garde has rarely seemed more apt. My beef isn’t against the avant-garde per se, however, just the awful misuse of it.

Under the circumstances, the cast led by Mr. Lithgow and Ms. Wiest, do all they broadly can. And so does Katie Holmes, in what appears to be her stage-acting debut. Simon McBurney has the last word, though. He reappears in spirit. We would expect nothing less.                    

The searing speech at the conclusion of the play about “a universe of people outside” who have a moral responsibility to one another must have inspired the director to bestow on us his ultimate, patronizing eureka moment. Arthur Miller’s closing image of the grieving Mrs. Keller is now overshadowed by video images of an anonymous crowd on the street.

It’s the universe of people, right? It’s us, isn’t it, Simon?

jheilpern@observer.com

McBurney’s Ego Upstages Miller, Lithgow, Wiest—Even Katie Holmes