Some people can’t leave well enough alone. Simon McBurney, who staged the new Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama All My Sons, has built his directorial style out of fussing and overdoing; it calls so much attention to itself that snobs often mistake it for art. Miller’s play begins the morning after a thunderstorm. McBurney’s production opens with the cast assembling onstage while an avuncular John Lithgow beamingly announces the play’s title and begins to read the opening stage direction. This folksy gesture, utterly inappropriate to the high-tech artiness that follows, cross-fades into giant projected titles against a stormy-sky backdrop. A deafening sound effect that evokes a bombing raid takes over, the cast scurries offstage in semi-darkness, and a prop tree in what’s supposed to be the Keller family’s backyard blows down. Then, finally, the play begins.
When it does, there’s a surprising turn: McBurney has predicated his overwrought theatrics on an acting style that turns out, in the case of his three superb leading players, to be wholly organic. Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, and Patrick Wilson, we quickly learn, all have the bigness to carry off McBurney’s demands convincingly. “Convincingly” is the tricky part: Any actor with a loud voice and a taste for grandiose gestures can impress the untutored, but when theater people talk about “size” in acting, they mean a bigness that carries an inner truth at any volume level, rooted more deeply than mere noisemaking. These three powerful performances aren’t merely big; they’re rooted. They involve a degree of emotional exposure (and in Lithgow’s case, of physical risk as well) that requires both an internal life current and the technique to shape its outward expression.
Give McBurney credit: He presumably helped to shape these impressive performances, not least by calling for the big scale on which they succeed. With more erratic success, he’s demanded equally high intensity from his supporting cast. Some of these performances come off as awkwardly, self-consciously showy (Becky Ann Baker and Jordan Gelber do best at dodging the showiness), but the emphasis makes Miller’s sly way of planting alternate perspectives on his story through the quirks of the Kellers’ neighbors come across strongly.
In this context, the main objection to McBurney’s mannerist aural-visual gimmickry is that it mars his good work as well as Miller’s. All My Sons vests both its emotional and its moral weight in its characters, trusting its actors to bear the double burden. It doesn’t require the panoply of swirling projections, ominously throbbing music, ghostly parades of supernumeraries, and frantically artificial blocking that McBurney deploys. The result looks like an effort to duplicate Stephen Daldry’s 1994 revival of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, also seen on Broadway in 1947, which shares Miller’s stern view of moral responsibility among the monied.
But Priestley’s play, with its closed-off upper-class family, maintains the gentlemanly tone of the prewar West End; to that extent it needed, half a century later, the violent shake-up Daldry gave it. All My Sons, which literally brings the violence of war into the bosom of the crooked arms manufacturer’s family, doesn’t need any audio-visual help in spilling its American guts; it was written for a tradition in which actors did that as a matter of course. Miller’s story, with its corporate profiteering, deniability, and plea deals, is as up-to-date as Dick Cheney’s desk calendar; only the art-sauce McBurney pours over it makes it seem old hat. He shouldn’t be blamed, I imagine, for Katie Holmes’s performance in the key role of the dead son’s fiancée: Her mechanical line readings, getting hollower as the play’s emotional pitch escalates, suggest that Broadway has at last discovered that long-held commercial producers’ dream: the android actress. But, like the other tech effects, she can easily be ignored while Wiest, Lithgow, and Wilson are onstage.
You can’t ignore the tech effects in Manhattan Theatre Club’s sad attempt to put up a stage version of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be or Not to Be: The humanity that should offset them is almost too pallid and purposeless to be noticeable. I don’t mean the actors, who seem to be really nice people trying their best against insuperable odds, but the humanity of the whole event. The production’s overriding motive seems to have been to make money off a famous title formerly attached to somebody else’s carefully crafted work. Lubitsch’s comic masterpiece could only have emerged from its own time; Mel Brooks’s foolhardy 1983 remake at least added a few dollops of Brooks’s Catskills-style humor. Here, adaptor Nick Whitby and director Casey Nicholaw don’t contribute anything except muddled intentions and an intriguing ineptitude at exactly the kind of narrative shorthand you need to put something cinematic onstage. Some people can’t leave well enough alone.
Adam Rapp, a much more intriguing phenomenon, can’t leave unwellness alone. While his earlier plays veer toward Absurdism and extreme violence, more recently he’s explored—exploited, at times—the inherent pathos of small, hopelessly despairing lives. The sheer neo-Romantic negativity of Rapp’s vision saves it from being sentimental; his plays would be kitsch if cable TV offered a Deathtime channel. In Kindness, a troubled Midwestern teen (Christopher Denham) and his dying mother (Annette O’Toole), pretty much at the end of their respective ropes, hole up in their midtown Manhattan hotel room with an encouraging cab driver (Ray Anthony Thomas) and a strange woman (Katherine Waterston) the teen meets in the hall. The attempted relationships quirk out rather than work out, but everyone reaches a kind of closure, not always devoutly to be wished. The cast, under Rapp’s direction, handles the downbeat style adroitly. But one wonders, not for the first time watching a Rapp play, when there’s going to be more than merely the pain of life. I keep waiting for Rapp to write his equivalent of Byron’s Corsair or Musset’s Lorenzaccio. Those old Romantics tested their despair against a world of action.