Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 16, 2008
All My Sons by Arthur Miller. Directed by Simon McBurney. Scenic & costume design by Tom Pye. Lighting design by Paul Anderson. Sound design by Christopher Shutt & Carolyn Downing. Projection design by Finn Ross for Mesmer. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, Katie Holmes, with Becky Ann Baker, Christian Camargo, Michael D’Addario, Danielle Ferland, Jordan Gelber, Damian Young, Sherman Howard, Clark Jackson, Lizbeth Mackay, Christopher Grey, Misa Danielle Skraastad.
Those tricks have served him well as founder and artistic director of the inventive multimedia British theatre troupe Complicité, perhaps never more spectacularly than in Mnemonic, the company's whirlwind 2001 meditation on the uncertainty of artistic evolution. And in new works that demand new perspectives on new ideas, McBurney's frantic soundscapes, plot-propelling video projections, and disjointedly disconnected deliveries are capable of unlocking something compelling within the leaden strongbox of everyday life.
The same effects are not automatically conferred on plays not written to take advantage of them. Here, the director's insipient playfulness, which suggests that of a filthy-rich teenage boy let loose in an upscale electronics store, is constantly at odds with Miller's story about assuming, accepting, and understanding responsibility. McBurney is always trying to transform this staunchly corporeal work into an airy, arty memory play, as if to tell us that though its lesson is worth heeding, we all have better things to do than actually pay attention to it.
This is cemented for us in a newly created opening scene: The cast walks onstage as themselves, Patrick Wilson (a Tony-nominated actor with four previous Broadway credits) operates a fly system to bring in some scenery, and two-time Tony winner John Lithgow steps downstage to welcome us all and tell us about the show they'll be doing. He then reads aloud the play's opening stage directions; only then do we hear Miller's voice.
Well, sort of. We hear his dialogue, and we meet the characters who are still fighting battles with they began waging in the midst of World War II, some five years prior: Joe Keller (Lithgow), the patriarch, who's spent his time since the war keeping an incriminating secret; his wife, Kate (Dianne Wiest), who's never accepted that her son Larry died in combat; Chris (Wilson), their son, who's been caught in his father's and brother's shadow, unable to resume his own life; and Larry's girlfriend Ann Deever (Katie Holmes), whom Chris hopes to marry, but who might carry enough baggage to bring down the Kellers if she gets too close.
McBurney's entire production extends the basic idea from his new prologue, that the conventions we weave around ourselves create our reality. In a way this makes sense, as the Kellers and Ann have constructed their existence since Larry's death on an intricate framework of lies, illusions, and war profiteering. Such foundations frequently prove too shoddy to withstand the passage of time, let alone people striving to learn what makes those around them tick.
Unfortunately, McBurney's innovations don't draw us closer to these people - they push us away. Lithgow's opening speech invokes the play as an abstract object lesson, not an exploration of the ways that guilt and grief may intermingle. Projections (by Finn Ross for Mesmer) expand brief snatches of recollection into stage-filling cinematics, redirecting your focus from the words to the visuals; soupy underscoring (from sound designers Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing) gives even the soberest moments an unavoidable, filmic hokeyness. Even the ultraminimalist set (by Tom Pye, also the costume designer) looks to have been composed of remnants from the most recent revival of Our Town.
The actors have apparently even been chosen based on how their own distancing eccentricities fit into the production's overall schema. Lithgow plays Joe only half a step away from a pensive academic, and Wiest has made Kate an oblivious, braying Manhattan Earth Mother. These are hardly unfamiliar identities, and their urbane sheen is too loose a fit for people like these who have built themselves from the ground up. Lithgow and Wiest's unique speech patterns, sing-songy but halting, prevent them from limning the long, legato lines of Miller's speeches for their full musicality.
Holmes, too, is operating mostly on autopilot, her line readings just as energetic and mechanical as theirs. But while her unassuming, down-home beauty gives her a slight edge just right for Ann, Holmes spends most of her time coasting on a primitive charm and barebones acting-school technique so developed you can practically smell the pencil and eraser dust. She's respectable enough given her surroundings, but her work feels here like an unnatural outgrowth of her more detailed (if less-challenging) turns in films like Go and Batman Begins and the TV series Dawson's Creek.
Wilson is the only lead to give a traditionally successful performance - vocally supple, alert, engaged with his surroundings - and then only when Chris is at his most innocent and optimistic. Wilson's tarnishing-golden-boy act starts crumbling when Chris is faced in the second act with what his parents have been concealing, and the early Chris and the later one are too mismatched to reconcile as shards of the same fractured soul.
The supporting cast is an even messier assemblage. Christian Camargo, as Ann's standard-bearer brother, is sometimes as earnest as Wilson and sometimes as affected as Wiest and Lithgow, but never entirely convincing as a young man who's sacrificed too much for the wrong reasons. Becky Ann Baker does a sparkling audition for Wiest's understudy as one neighbor, Jordan Gelber is all excitable joy as another, and Danielle Ferland does a marvelous imitation of herself as his wife.
That's the problem with this All My Sons: Everyone is imitating someone or something else. Miller's play is so rawly powerful, so willing to assign blame for the great crimes it documents, it survives McBurney's masquerade ball, but the directorial trappings don't make emotional truth easy to come by. Just as the characters are locked in a dark spiral resulting from Larry's death, so are the actors flailing as they try to mine subtleties from a production that demands only the obvious. "We're like at a railroad station waiting for a train that never comes in," Chris says of his family's plight. It doesn't take long for you to understand exactly how he feels.