The Man Who Had All the Luck by Arthur Miller. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set designed by Allen Moyer. Costumes designed by Michael Krass. Lighting designed by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Eileen Tague. Original music by Tom Kochan. Cast: Chris O'Donnell, Samantha Mathis, Mason Adams, James Rebhorn, Sam Robards, Edward James Hyland, Dan Moran, Richard Riehle, Ryan Shivley, David Wohl, Mary Catherine Wright.
Even as a young man, Arthur Miller was brimming with ideas for plays. The soon-to-be revered playwright, who provided modern classics with All My Sons, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, and many others had a clever conceit at the heart of his first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, which opened in 1944.
The title character is David Beeves, a young man who has discovered that he is blessed with what appears to be astonishingly good fortune. He wants to marry the girl he's been in love with since childhood, but her father stands in the way. Before long, her father is killed in a car accident. Later, when faced with having to fix a foreign car whose problem he can't diagnose, who should arrive at the door but a man who knows such cars intimately?
The original production of The Man Who Had All the Luck closed after four performances. The new Roundabout revival of the show at the American Airlines Theatre is fated to fare much, much better. Subscription audiences help, but so does the notoriety the show's playwright has achieved in the intervening 58 years. Make no mistake about it, the show definitely deserves better than the four performance run it eked out originally. However, it certainly displays only traces of the genius Miller revealed later and possibly preserves more of a young playwright's mistakes than Miller himself might like.
The biggest problem with the show is the repetitiveness of it all. It's divided into three acts, and the structure is astonishingly similar in each: David overcomes something previously perceived as insurmountable adversity, while others cripple with failure around him. This happens time and time again, the cycle broken only by the ringing down of the final curtain.
That's not to say David doesn't learn something along the way. Granted, it doesn't happen until minutes before the end of the show, but it happens nonetheless, as David realizes not only the source for his own unbelievable luck, but others' discouraging misfortunes. His final act is simple, ascending the stairs to the baby he's never been able to bear to touch. David has come a long way, and learned enough to be able to do it. David at the end of the show is in no way the David at the beginning.
Or, at least that's the way it's supposed to work. It doesn't here, and the production as a result doesn't fly. The reason can be summed up quite succinctly: Chris O'Donnell. The young actor, probably best known for his extensive film work, is likable from beginning to end. His performance is amiable almost to the point of absurdity, his sunny disposition and unquenchable good nature David's only true driving force.
After a while, though, it grows tiring; O'Donnell's unceasing upbeat behavior is heavily at odds with David's stated torture at watching the constant suffering of his friends. It becomes apparent by the second act that O'Donnell has chosen this take on the character because he either lacks the understanding of the role or the tools necessary to bring David's darker demons to the surface. O'Donnell never displays the sense of being at the brink of despair because of his good luck that is so vital an element to David. Without it, there is simply no play.
That makes it sadly anticlimactic to discuss the rest of the proceedings. Much of the supporting cast is strong. Mason Adams is touching and funny as the mink herder and grandfather-type figure to David. James Rebhorn and Ryan Shively are very effective as David's father and brother, and Sam Robards gets plenty of mileage out of his role as the auto mechanic who starts out by helping David in a pinch, but ends up a valuable family friend. Also of particular note are Allen Moyer's spic-and-span wooden box of a set, giving the perfect rustic air to the play's midwestern setting. Kenneth Posner's country bright lights and Michael Krass's simple, homespun costumes complement the design nicely, evoking the era with color and simplicity.
Overall, though, the play never completely works, the primary culprits in this production being O'Donnell and director Scott Ellis. Ellis's direction doesn't plod, it doesn't shine, the pace never really picks up, and none of the events that transpire onstage seem of any real importance. Though they're most likely reflections on O'Donnell's portrayal, Ellis never succeeds at bringing all the pieces together.
Miller, while hardly blameless for the show's problems, obviously displayed in his earliest Broadway outing a gift in chronicling the simple, everyday people and situations to which we can all relate. And, while he liked making his point here a few too many times, Miller had great enough presence of mind to not at all neglect the opposing viewpoint in the character of Shory, played here by Dan Moran.
Miller obviously learned a great deal from his work with this play, and rough edges aside, there are two important reasons to embrace it. First, it did spring from the pen of one of America's greatest twentieth century dramatists, and provides an important look inside Miller's character and personality at traits that would become vital in his later and more significant work.
It also demonstrates that, even in his earliest endeavors, Miller was not afraid to challenge his audience. He was still developing his personal approach to his craft, but there's hardly a complete lack of thoughtful material in The Man Who Had All the Luck, and days after you see the play, you may well find yourself pondering the ideas and recommendations brought forth in the script.
It's a shame that O'Donnell does not better personify the meaning of the play, but if you can't bring yourself to see it for him - and you shouldn't - Arthur Miller is certainly reason enough.