"People; are getting so damn educated in this country, we're not going to have anyone to take out the trash."
Given the recent proliferation of topical dramas that claim to be "about;" current political issues, you might expect that line to be from a play written hurriedly to address the immigration debate currently gripping the nation. However, those words were written 60 years ago, long before words like "globalization;" or "outsourcing;" came into use. The line was written by Arthur Miller, and it comes from his first successful play, All My Sons, which first premiered on Broadway back in 1947.
All My Sons is an ambitious work: lengthy, introspective, and heavily influenced by theatrical heavyweights such as Ibsen, O'Neill and Shaw--whose mention in the text seems to be an acknowledgment of his 1905 play, Major Barbara. Like that work, Miller's drama centers on the morality of munitions. All My Sons is about the Kellers, an All-American family with a clapboard house, two wholesome sons and profitable business selling warplanes to the US Army.
This play's subject of war profiteering has been cited in many reviews of the new production at the Geffen Playhouse (running until May 21), and indeed it would be hard to imagine that the word "Halliburton" doesn't pop into each audience member's mind at some point in the evening; but this is just one element of Miller's play that continues to have relevance today.
While this staging by Randall Arney is not entirely successful, it thankfully does not attempt to emphasize or underline this relevance. Joe Keller, the family patriarch who successfully avoids conviction for knowingly selling faulty parts during World War II, has not been made up to look or talk like our current Vice-President and no other gimmicks to "update;" the play have been employed . No, Arney and his cast lets Miller's play speak--or shout--for itself.
And shout it does. At the performance I attended, the play's climax clearly shook the audience. One man seated right behind me, started audibly repeating "I; knew that was going to happen." He said it aloud, as if he couldn't help himself. People started shushing him, but it didn't help. The man was so moved that speaking out loud was the only way for him to deal with the tragic events onstage.
Credit must be given to the director and cast for rendering this climactic scene--and the other highly charged moments throughout the play--in a way that crackles with theatrical excitement; but while Arney and his cast nail the symphonic crashes of Miller's writing, they haven't mastered the quieter passages which make the play more than just a polemic against greed.
For All My Sons to reach its full potential, the idyllic life the Keller family lived before the war must be convincingly suggested. The early scenes in the play, where the Kellers go about their daily lives, should be enviously relaxing--but no less interesting than when the bombshells start exploding. Here at the Geffen, however, these scenes seem unrehearsed, with the dialogue and movement feeling slack and unfocused.
Only Laurie Metcalf, as the Keller matriarch, is consistently engaging from start to finish. A performance that is all the more impressive considering the part she just finished playing at a small theater in Burbank. Metcalf's spineless Lorraine in Justin Tanner's loopy comedy, Pot Mom, could not be more different than her unrepentant Kate Keller, yet the actress has found the right balance of humor and sadness in both roles.
Metcalf is joined on the Geffen stage by talented castmates, but the other leads fail to connect as deeply with their characters. Len Cariou and Neil Patrick Harris are strong presences as father and son, but they both come off as archetypes rather than complex human souls. Morgan Rusler is amusing in a small role and Amy Sloan makes a promising, well-poised debut as Ann Deever. Robert Blackman's pastoral set also deserves mention, even if it looks as if was borrowed from the revival of Mornings at Seven a few season back.
All My Sons was written at time when America was victorious in war and prosperous at home, and today it remains a brave, bold look at the darker elements of our national character. This straightforward production is, if nothing else, a reminder that when serious theater probes instead of preaches, attention will be paid.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.