Monday, June 10, 2019

Arthur Miller in New York and London: All My Sons and Death of a Salesman

Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Hampton Fluker in All My Sons. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

All My Sons was the first play Arthur Miller had produced on Broadway, in 1947, and for me, at least, it’s the only one that works. Death of a Salesman, written two years later, makes loud proclamations about the American dream, but its argument is confused, and Miller is so careful about maintaining a vague Everyman quality for Willy Loman – choosing a symbolic name rather than an ethnic one, even though the rhythm of the lines sounds distinctly second-generation Jewish-American, and not even detailing exactly what Willy sells on those New England road trips – that the realism grows blurry. (One of the qualities Dustin Hoffman brought to the role when he played it on Broadway in 1984 was an embrace of the Jewishness Miller worked so hard to bury. He was brilliant, though the delicacy of the performance didn’t survive into the clumsy TV movie version directed by Volker Schlondorff.) Miller has big, Ibsen-like ambitions in All My Sons, which is no less than an indictment of the American way of doing business, which he pits against the values he believes were embodied in the sacrifices made by American servicemen in the Second World War. But he’s very specific about what Joe Keller does: he runs a company that manufactures key components in a variety of complicated mechanical items, and during the war he and his partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, turned out cylinder heads for bomber planes. When the process developed a flaw and a batch of the heads came out with cracks in him, the plant covered up the mistake and twenty-one pilots crashed and died. Joe put the blame on Steve, protesting that he was home sick with the flu that day and Steve acted on his own, out of fear of losing the government contract. And though in fact Joe told him exactly what to do, a jury exonerated Joe and sent Steve to prison. All My Sons is set during the twenty-four-hour period, three years later, when Steve’s daughter Ann – once the fiancée of Joe and Kate Keller’s older son, Larry, a pilot himself who went missing around the time his father came to trial – and her brother George return to the Midwestern town where Joe’s plant is now making more money than ever, and the truth is revealed.

Miller isn’t Ibsen (who was his hero) but this play at least is comparable to a second-tier Ibsen like An Enemy of the People (which Miller did the best-known translation of). It’s easy to point to its shortcomings. He has a tin ear, and when he reaches for what he thinks is Yankee-style poetic vernacular, the results can make you cringe, though there’s considerably less of that stuff than there is in Salesman. And when he returns to the source of Ibsen’s realist dramas, the well-made melodramas of Scribe and Sardou that Ibsen subverted so ingeniously, he replicates their creakiest conventions. Both All My Sons and Salesman are Freudian well-made plays in which the secret is psychological: Biff’s life fell apart after he discovered his father cheating on his mother in a Boston hotel room; Larry killed himself by crashing his plane when he read the news that his father had knowingly (allegedly) sent pilots like himself out in vehicles with faulty cylinders. The revelation is more convincing in All My Sons, though the method by which it’s transmitted, a letter from Larry that Ann has kept to herself all this time, isn’t, and the play’s central symbol – a tree planted in the Kellers’ backyard in his memory that blows down in a lightning storm the night mere hours before the first scene – is strained.

The conflict isn’t strained, however, and the characters are fully fleshed out. The protagonist isn’t Joe but his younger son Chris, who came home from the war to work with his father in the business and has resumed contact with Ann (who now lives in New York) – a friendship by mail that has blossomed into a romance. He’s invited her to visit so he can propose marriage, over the strenuous objections of his mother, who refuses to believe that Larry is dead and still thinks of Ann as Larry’s girl. In the play’s structure Joe is the antagonist. His conviction that a man must fight like a tiger to preserve the business he’s poured his heart and soul into is inextricably bound up with his other conviction that he does it for his family and that nothing else matters; his sons’ notion, brought out by their wartime experience, is that humanity is more important. You can hear echoes of the arguments between father and son at the end of act two (after Chris learns the truth) and in act three in the scene at the end of The Godfather, Part II when Michael reveals to his family that he’s signed up to fight in the war, even though his father could have pulled strings to keep him out, and confronts his brother Sonny’s baffled anger that he’d choose strangers over his family; and indeed, as Francis Ford Coppola has constructed the two movies, the seeds of the disintegration of Michael’s character are here – in the way he’s drawn away from this sense of a greater loyalty into an affirmation of his father’s and his brother’s smaller, more self-interested one. The difference is that Chris Keller, unlike Michael Corleone, is a naïf. He’s idealized his father; he believed his protests of innocence. So when he discovers the truth, his delayed fall from innocence (he’s around thirty) is staggering, and it results in tragedy. “I know you’re no worse than other men,” he shouts at his father, “but I thought you were better,” and he turns on his father, just as, according to his letter to Ann, Larry did, and Joe walks into his bedroom and puts a bullet in his brain.

All My Sons is usually performed as a straightforward social-problem melodrama where the villain who allowed cracked cylinder heads to go out in planes gets what he deserves. But the way Miller wrote the play, the conflict isn’t so simple (just as it isn’t in The Godfather). Obviously Miller believes in Chris and Larry’s ethics, but he doesn’t portray Chris’s blind faith in his father as a sign of his virtuousness and moral superiority but of a dangerous romanticism. In an unsettling little scene between Ann and Sue Bayliss, who now lives in the Deevers’ house next door to the Kellers’, Sue begs Ann to move away with Chris after they marry. She complains that his idealism – his certainty that, as she puts it, people should be better than it’s possible to be – has made her husband Jim unhappy with his life as a GP because he’s not immersed in the nobler (and less remunerative) process of scientific research. Chris’s worldview burdens him with tunnel vision. When he lashes out against his father, he’s so adamant that he doesn’t see he’s virtually putting the gun in Joe’s hand, and when Joe kills himself, all he can do is fall to his knees and weep to his mother that he didn’t mean it. The play is a true tragedy, but directors have an easier time reading it the other way – as, I’m sure, audiences do.

But not Jack O’Brien, whose emotionally cataclysmic 1988 television version, with James Whitmore as Joe, Aidan Quinn as Chris, Michael Learned as Kate, Joan Allen as Ann and Zeljko Ivanek as George – a cast it would be impossible to improve on – has always seemed to me the model of how to produce this play. O’Brien has now staged a revival at the Roundabout, and clearly he still owns the play. This time around he’s added a surrealistic element in the form of video footage (designed by Jeff Sugg) at the top of act one that incorporates the crashing planes with Larry’s tree destroyed by lightning, and the postcard image of a mid-century small-town house on a frontispiece scrim that greets the audience as we’re seated in the American Airlines Theatre gives way to a life-size version, the Keller house, glimpsed at first through the scrim and then in its full glory when it flies up. (Douglas W. Schmidt designed the set, Natasha Katz the lighting.) Otherwise he preserves its realist style, and the actors find character details that individuate their readings of the characters, especially Tracy Letts as Joe and Benjamin Walker as Chris. As Letts plays him, Joe’s all-American ordinariness is grounded in an instinctual, unschooled pragmatism; when we see him moving his lips as he reads the newspaper, we’re reminded that he never got past a year of night school. Letts, whose superlative performance matches Whitmore’s, gives Joe a physical ruggedness that conveys his unwavering confidence in the way he’s chosen to be in the world. By contrast, Walker is restless and inward and even a little goofy; the idea that he hasn’t quite found his place since the war is accentuated by his pronounced limp. (This is the first time I’ve seen an actor expand on the war injury the text alludes lightly to.) Chris confesses to his father in the first act that the business doesn’t inspire him and that he’s looking to find the beauty he’s missing in a life with Annie; in Walker’s approach to the character we get the sense that what he’s seeking is a cure for the tentativeness and alienation he feels – perhaps because of the experience of losing men he loved in battle, perhaps because the world he’s returned to isn’t marinated in the values they personified. (I thought of Willa Cather’s fine novel One of Ours, where a homecoming war veteran winds up killing himself because nothing in his post-war existence has come up to the intensity and definiteness of his wartime life.) And that somewhat off quality exacerbates the discomfort we feel when he claims that the men in his squad didn’t just die in battle but killed themselves for each other; we can see that his idealism makes him too combustible for the real world. When Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden) says to Kate, after Chris has found out his father was guilty, “Chris would never be able to live with a thing like that,” it confirms our own impressions.

Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in All My Sons. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Kate is Annette Bening, who struggles somewhat with a fascinating but tricky role. Linda Loman in Salesman is her husband’s unswerving, all-in defender, and though she derives unquestioned strength from this position, it makes her less interesting than the male members of the family, even Happy, the philandering younger son whose version of his father’s threadbare values is crass and somewhat repugnant. (It should be said, however, that a number of actresses have done wonders with Linda, especially Mildred Dunnock and Elizabeth Franz.) But Kate’s strength, which is inseparable from her neurosis, is frightening in two ways. First, she knows the truth about what happened at the plant that day, and her own feeling of guilt has transformed itself into a fervent faith in Larry’s having survived because in her mind she’s melded him together with the twenty-one pilots who died in those doomed planes. So – as she finally tells Chris, pleading hysterically with him not to marry Ann – if he’s dead, then his own father killed him, and God would not allow such a monstrous thing. Second, she draws on the full battery of her manipulative resources to disarm George when he appears in act two to take Ann away with him. (Both the Deever children have accepted the fact of their father’s guilt and Joe’s innocence since the trial and have disowned Steve, but George, having finally broken down and visited him in jail, has come away with a new certainty that they’ve wronged him.) She plays on his childhood memories, serving him the grape juice he always loved in the yard where he spent so many joyous hours, assuring him that he can never hate them because they’re his personal history. Her attack on his most vulnerable spot, the happy past he lost when his father went to prison, is so powerful that it almost breaks down his resolve, but a slip-up, an inconsistency in the story of what happened the day Steve welded over the cracked cylinder heads, restores him to his position that his father is a dupe and Joe is a liar.

Bening works very hard but she doesn’t have Lett’s or Walker’s facility with Miller’s blocky, faux-Midwestern language, so in the first act her attempts at crafting the voice of a plain-spoken, minimally educated hausfrau just makes her sound simple. Bening can be a great actress but generally not in middle-range roles; they diminish her. That thought crossed my mind in act two, but then she surprised me: she finds her way into the character in the scene where Kate goes to work on George. Of course, at this point in the play the heightened threat to Kate’s family and to her carefully arranged belief system unleashes a darkness in her we didn’t suspect was there.

Francesca Carpanini handles the second female role, Ann, gracefully. Sharp-tongued, straightforward Sue Bayliss (well played by Chinasa Ogbuagu) quips that Ann is the female version of Chris, and you can see it in the scene where Joe (in a move we identify as self-protective, even if they don’t) proposes giving Steve a job when he gets out of prison, and the young people, speaking as one, shrug off the idea that there’s any forgiveness for a man who killed twenty-one pilots. Ann isn’t all that different from the last ingénue role Carpanini took in a Broadway revival, Alexandra in The Little Foxes, though it has more color, and the fact that Ann is a supporting character means that less is required of her for the dramatic structure of the play. (Alexandra’s unquestioned moral goodness is a bit of a pain when the play is shaped partly as her coming of age.) I liked Michael Hayden and also Nehal Joshi as the earnest, somewhat doltish Frank Lubey, whom Kate tasks with coming up with a horoscope for Larry – one of her desperate measures to keep the hope burning that he’s still alive. The only weak link in the cast is Hampton Fluker, who walks onstage on the verge of hysteria and whose undifferentiated emotionalizing singles him out among an ensemble that hits every note with precision.

O’Brien stages the seduction of George Deever so beautifully that the shortcomings in Fluker’s performance don’t mitigate its power. First Bening’s Kate smothers him with the jasmine scent of memory and motherly affection; then Letts’s Joe wraps him in a bear hug and greets him with tears in his voice. From this point the play gets you in its grip and doesn’t let go. The father-son scene at the end of the act is devastating, and the acting is thrilling. There’s a pause rather than an intermission between the second and third acts, and that feels like right, because we don’t want anything to interrupt our connection with the escalating tragedy. In act three, Letts builds on that choice to have Joe move his lips when he reads: the moment when he reads Larry’s letter after Chris shoves it into his hands goes on for an agonizing – daringly – long time, and we can feel the words burrowing into his brain. I thought Letts was extraordinary as George in Pam McKinnon’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2012 but he’s even better here. He’s one of our most gifted actors.

Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in All My Sons at the Old Vic. (Photo: Johan Persson)

I got a bad feeling at the Old Vic production of All My Sons when the play started with a stock montage of American newsreel images (lots of flag waving). In my experience, few British directors are at home with American realism; they tend to pump it up. Jeremy Herrin, who helmed People, Places and Things and The Moderate Soprano – both of which I loved – sure isn’t. He encourages the actors to overplay everything, and he doesn’t even stage the key scenes effectively. Sally Field as Kate, Bill Pullman as Joe and Colin Morgan as Chris play feelings rather than actions, so the play is an emotional wash. There’s a welcome respite in the first half of act two: for the first time you can see clearly what the characters are about, and Field in particular calms down and really starts to give a performance. Unfortunately her big second-act scene brings out her worst diva instincts; she pitches it to the second balcony, and that’s the kiss of death for this revival. In act three the actors cry and cry. Morgan seems hopelessly miscast, and Pullman, who looked on paper like he’d be right for Joe, is so affected that he’s basically playacting. (It’s shocking; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pullman fake it in this way.) A few of the supporting actors come through, especially Jenna Coleman, the star of the British TV series Victoria, as Ann (she reminds me of Linda Cardellini, and that’s a compliment) and Oliver Johnstone as George. Coleman has a nice bit with a hat in the second act. George enters wearing their father’s fedora; it’s a conscious symbol of his newly formed loyalty to Steve and identification with him. He hands it off to his sister, and Coleman holds it uncomfortably, clearly weighted by it but unable to get it out of her hands. It’s a small detail but refreshing in a production that’s starving for specificity. Kayla Meikle, as Sue, gloves the character’s anger and resentment in her exchange with Ann, and as her husband Sule Rimi gives his third-act scene with Kate, where he reveals that he’s known for a long time that Joe is guilty, a smart combination of kindness and sadness. Otherwise the show is a major disappointment.

Wendell Pierce in Young Vic's Death of a Salesman, (Photo:  Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

Wendell Pierce would make a great Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, but he’s all wrong for Willy Loman, a role he’s playing in the Young Vic production of Death of a Salesman co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. Pierce has some fine, quietly intense moments that are very effective, but he has such a vibrant presence and so much charisma that it’s impossible to believe in him as a mediocrity; you can’t imagine the people in any room he walked into not sitting up immediately and taking notice. The entire show is misguided. Elliott, who staged bothWar Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a great director, but she’s another one who clearly isn’t comfortable with American realism; the present-day scenes are indifferently staged and they lack shape, partly because the actors linger too long and make a meal of their lines. (This production is a good fifteen minutes longer than any previous Salesman I’ve sat through.) That’s especially true of Martins Imhangbe as Happy, whom I didn’t buy for an instant, whether he was jawing with his brother Biff (Arinzé Kene) or shining on his mother Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) or chatting up a cover girl (Jennifer Saayeng) in a restaurant. I didn’t buy Trevor Cooper as Charley, the Lomans’ neighbor, either, or Maggie Service as the woman whom Biff, in the climactic flashback toward the end of the second act, catches in his father’s hotel room in Boston. The rest of the supporting cast, except for Kene and Joseph Mydell as Uncle Ben and Ian Bonar in his brief time on stage as the grown-up Bernard, Charley’s son, is merely uninteresting. (Bonar can’t pull off the whining, cautious teenage Bernard; no one in my experience ever has.)

Here the flashbacks mix in Brechtian elements with the expressionism the text calls for: occasionally the characters sing snatches of their lines. This choice makes no sense to me; it has that Viewpoints throwing-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel. And even the expressionism doesn’t work. Whenever Biff and Happy appear in the past as adoring adolescents, they run on in some impression of suspended motion that looks clumsy, and Anna Fleischle’s suggested-realist set by Anna Fleischle is rather ugly.

Elliott and Cromwell have cast four black actors as the Lomans and occasionally the production addresses the issue of race, though with only intermittent success. When Willy asks his boss, Howard Wagner (Matthew Seadon-Young), to take him off the road and relocate him in the New York office and Howard turns him down, Howard’s response to his anger is not just surprise and discomfort but distaste; you know that he would use a different tone to a white employee of nearly thirty-five years. And it’s clear that the maître d’ (also played by Seadon-Young) who seats the Loman boys at the Manhattan restaurant where they’ve made a date to take Willy out for dinner is careful to place them in a back room. On the other hand, when Willy confides in Linda that he overheard some workers at one of the companies on his New England route make a disparaging comment, we’re meant to think it’s a racist epithet, yet the line that follows, when Willy suggests that maybe the problem is that he doesn’t dress to advantage, doesn’t fit. I admire the production’s attempt to refresh the play by giving it an African American context, especially since no one needs yet another revival of Death of a Salesman with nothing new to offer (like the one I saw in London four years ago with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter), but the directors haven’t thought through their concept.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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