Unstable and Unsubtle

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two well-worn, theatrical chestnuts are currently drawing big crowds on Broadway: the 61-year old Arthur Miller drama, All My Sons and the 35-year old Peter Schaffer drama, Equus. Both of these plays are revived with regularity all over the country in community theaters as well as schools. Recently Los Angeles saw professional revivals of both these plays, but neither burned up the box office. These local productions did have recognizable actors, the East West Player's Equus starred George Takei (Sulu from Star Trek) and the Geffen Playhouse's All My Sons featured Laurie Metcalf and Neil Patrick Harris. However, Broadway's versions up the celebrity quotient a notch, garnering tabloid and prompting the following questions: Does Harry Potter really get naked on stage (Yes, he does) and is Katie Holmes still a member of the human race (Yes, she is).

Now with that out of the way, let's talk about the merits of both of these shows which aim to meld high-brow drama with buzz worthy stars. Equus does feature Daniel Radcliffe in the buff, but it also stars Richard Griffiths, his Harry Potter co-star (who plays Uncle Vernon in the Potter films). Both actors all well cast in their parts and generally convey the feelings the text requires. Griffiths, as he did in the recent History Boys, plays a repressed, unhappily married British man who is questioning his life's work. He makes it seem easy, but it's no less entertaining for it.

Radcliffe, shorn of his spectacles and wizard's cap, has no trouble playing a confused, violent teenager — he's the right mix of intense and naive. However, neither actor goes very far in portraying the visceral madness of their characters; for all the play's talk of passion and unbridled emotion, both Radcliffe and Griffiths seem muted. Perhaps this is director Thea Sharrock's intention, with her black, minimalist set and detached mood, the play simmers but never really boils over—and without a real sense of frenzy, Equus feels more like just a kinky, equestrian themed episode of Colombo or Law and Order.

Equus's juicy scenes and quirky plot will always make it a popular show, but this revival doesn't bring out anything revelatory about the play. With the Broadway staging of All My Sons however, Simon McBurney makes this an Arthur Miller revival like no other. The British director employs video projection, sound effects, and nonstop music in his attempt to make Miller's post-WWII tragedy uber-relevant. He even brings the whole cast on-stage at the start of the play and has John Lithgow (who plays the Joe Keller) read the playwright's stage directions, “August of our era” he reads dramatically, just to make sure no one misses the point that the problems of greed, responsibility and capitalism in America are the same today as they were in 1947.

McBurney made his reputation with daring, theatrical flourishes. Unfortunately, Miller's old-fashioned (almost Greek) tragedy resists such filigree. McBurney gives us big images and sounds of trains when a character takes a train, or machines and workers when people discuss what goes on at Joe Keller's munitions factory -- and all the while ominous music tinkles and moans in the background. The all-star cast, including Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and yes, Mrs. Tom Cruise, never seem to interact but simply verbally collide with each other on stage. Holmes is credible as the girl next door, Ann Deever, yet there's no chemistry between her and Wilson; and her big scene, where she cries out, “I loved him,” in anguished memory of her deceased fiancé, feels empty, despite the fact that McBurney puts an echo effect on her amplified voice.

What's sad is that All My Sons is a particularly relevant play to stage right now, and yet all these gimmicks to make it seem more topical only serve to distance the audience from the play's timeless moral and its emotional impact. The Geffen's straight-forward revival of two years ago was much more satisfying, perhaps its time for an encore?

All My Sons and Equus run on Broadway through early 2009.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.