By Arthur Miller; Directed by Jack O'Brien
Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company
Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 6.23.19
American Airlines Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street
by Dan Dinero on 4.30.19
Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Hampton Fluker in All My Sons. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: While a decent intro for those who don't know Miller’s classic play about greed, capitalism, and loyalty, this solid, if uninspiring, revival could have been far more necessary.
Roundabout’s current production of All My Sons was in the news back in December, after original director Gregory Mosher stepped down over a casting dispute with Miller’s estate. I have much to say about this, but I guess I should begin with the production as it’s currently playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Long story short—it’s fine, but it could have been so much more interesting.
In 1947 Ohio, Joe Keller (Tracy Letts), an owner of a factory that makes airplane parts, is enjoying post-war life with his wife Kate (Annette Bening) and surviving son Chris (Benjamin Walker). Larry, their other son, went missing during the war; he’s clearly dead, but Kate refuses to believe it. As the play begins, their former neighbor Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini) arrives for a visit. She and her family left town in disgrace after Ann’s father Steve, who was Joe’s business partner, was sent to prison for shipping faulty parts that led to the deaths of American soldiers. And while Ann was Larry’s sweetheart, she’s moved on—to Larry’s brother Chris. Shortly after Ann arrives, there is word that her brother George (Hampton Fluker) is on his way. George has just come from visiting his father in prison, and it’s his arrival that will cause central conflict of the play—a re-examination of just what happened with those faulty parts, and who is to blame.
All My Sons is a play about greed and American capitalism, about loyalty to one’s family, and to one’s country. It’s a play that is probably always relevant, but certainly feels timely now, when we have a family of rich, amoral criminals running roughshod over our country. Not that Joe Keller is in any way like our so-called President, but he’s still a capitalist, and All My Sons shows how even the most well-meaning capitalist can wreak havoc when he privileges money over what's right.
Director Jack O’Brien offers up a rather traditional interpretation, a far cry from the 2008 revival directed by Simon McBurney. The set (by Douglas W. Schmidt), suitably lush, has the Keller’s main house flanked by two neighbors—the small property lots evoke the closeness of the American suburb in the late 1940s. A shout-out to John Gromada’s subtle and nuanced sound design, complete with nighttime crickets and the occasional plane flying overhead. As far as the performances, while I preferred Lithgow and Wiest back in 2008, Letts and the Tony-nominated Bening are solid, as is Benjamin Walker (also Tony nominated and, for those who care, shirtless at the top of act two). And—given my vehement critique that is to come—I should note that Carpanini is perfectly respectable as Ann.
To my mind the best performance is by Hampton Fluker as George, who rushes in for act two and leaves a sizable hole once he leaves. The moment when George appears to cave to both his sister’s pleas to forget the past and his own temptation to belong, until Kate then slips up and hints at what actually happened with her husband during the war, is heart-breaking, evidencing George’s inner conflict that (to my mind) defines this production. Yet, perhaps because he’s so good, Fluker’s performance makes glaringly obvious what we might have seen had Miller’s estate not stepped in.
For those who don’t keep up on such things, original director Gregory Mosher wanted to cast black actors in the roles of both Ann Deever and her brother George. But Arthur Miller’s estate had other ideas—they objected to this concept on the grounds that it would create an interracial couple (Chris and Ann) at a time when this would likely have been “objectionable” to the broader community. As Miller’s daughter Rebecca put it, Mosher’s casting “was in danger of white-washing the racism of 1947 suburban Ohio.” Mosher refused to cave and left the project, and was in turn replaced by director Jack O’Brien, who went along with the estate’s demands.
Curiously, the current production still has an interracial couple in Jim and Sue Bayliss (Michael Hayden and Chinasa Ogbuagu), a neighbor couple who make brief appearances. I guess this is okay because we don’t see them as much? Or because they don’t kiss or hold hands? Given that the Baylisses (an older couple) would have been together years before Chris and Ann would have even thought about dating, the explanation of “white-washing the racism” of the play’s 1947 setting doesn’t hold water, or is at the very least inconsistent.
Not to mention that, aside from the small parts of Sue Bayliss and the neighbor kid Bert (Alexander Bello or Monte Green), George Deever is the only character in Roundabout’s production cast with a black actor. And as crucial as his role is, George only appears in the second act. What this means is that for most of All My Sons, including the lengthy emotional climax in the third act, we are looking at a stage full of white folk. Sure, this isn’t a huge surprise in productions of Arthur Miller’s plays, but for a production that aims to be “diverse,” it’s hugely disappointing.
Using diverse casting in an old chestnut like All My Sons is not something that is only done as long as it holds water historically, or as long as one stays true to a play’s original themes. Diverse casting is used for at least two key reasons—to provide roles for actors of color, and (if done thoughtfully) to illuminate aspects of an old text in new ways. Mosher mentioned the first in his decision to step down—he had already been seeing black actors for the role of Ann, and didn’t feel right in then casting a white woman. But it’s the second that I couldn't help but think about as I watched this production.
What do we lose by the estate’s refusal to let Ann be black? We lose dramatizing the intersection of class and race that comes as a result of making the Kellers and the Deevers two recognizably different families. We lose the idea of black solidarity and affinity that comes from having more than one black actor on stage at a time (except for the tantalizing glimpse found in the few lines George exchanges with Sue). We lose the specific conflict that comes from a black Ann being forced to choose between her white boyfriend and his family, and her black brother and his family. And except for the second act, we even lose the basic sense of a “diverse” cast—the diversity that is supposedly the conceit of this production. In demanding Ann be white, the estate chose to privilege historical accuracy over the potential effects and resonances that a black Ann might have had for contemporary audiences. What do we get instead? Another (virtually) all-white production that casts a token actor of color to claim diversity cred. No shade against this talented cast, but that’s not just regrettable, it’s shameful.
(All My Sons plays at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, through June 23, 2019. Running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission and a short pause. Performances through May 10 are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 2 and 7, Thursdays and Fridays at 7, Saturdays at 2 and 7, and Sundays at 3. Starting May 11, all evening performances will be at 8. Regular price tickets are $59 - $169 (premium also available) and can be purchased at telecharge.com. For more information visit roundabouttheatre.org.)
All My Sons is by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Set Design by Douglas W. Schmidt. Costume Design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting Design by Natasha Katz. Sound Design by John Gromada. Video and Projection Design by Jeff Sugg. Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson. Original Music by Bob James. Fight Direction by Steve Rankin. Production Stage Manager is Tripp Phillips.
The cast is Annette Bening, Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker, Francesca Carpanini, Hampton Fluker, Michael Hayden, Jenni Barber, Alexander Bello, Monte Greene, Nehal Joshi, and Chinasa Ogbuagu.