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John Lithgow, Patrick Wilson battle in "All My Sons"

November 19, 2008 |  3:45 pm

John Lithgow in Arthur Miller's

Business, big and small, has a criminal aspect to it right now on Broadway. (Go figure!) 

Two David Mamet revivals, "American Buffalo" and "Speed-the-Plow," expose the free enterprise system as a great verbal con game.  Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate," the 90-plus-year-old playwright's recently revised 1989 drama, reveals the escalating family tensions over property that's no longer bringing in the revenue it once did.  Even heartstrings-tugging "Billy Elliot: The Musical" pits the average laborer against the pitiless powers that be. 

But if there's one Broadway moment that laid me flat with its pulverizing socioeconomic critique, it has to be the scene in which John Lithgow, playing Joe Keller in Simon McBurney's adventurous revival of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," finally confronts the guilt he's been concealing for so long. 

A manufacturer of airliner parts whose defective merchandise led to the wartime deaths of 21 men -- and indirectly to the death of Larry, his beloved son, a pilot in the military -- Joe tries to defend himself by explaining to Chris (Patrick Wilson), his idealizing son, the awful truth from his paternal point of view: "You're a boy, what could I do!  I'm in business; a man is in business; a hundred and twenty cracked, you're out of business; you got a process, the process don't work you're out of business; you don't know how to operate, your stuff is no good; they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell's it to them?  You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?"   

McBurney's post-Brechtian staging of Miller's classic, with its background film footage of war and "Our Town"-like dismantlement of stage illusion, transforms this exchange from the realm of ethical melodrama to high-moral opera.  Lithgow's ferocious howl made the hair stand up on the back of my neck (for once the cliche is earned); his whole body was clenched in a justification that's as reprehensible as it is tragically understandable.   

Somehow, the scene kept building, until Wilson's Chris shrieks back at his father: "Don't you have a country?  Don't you live in the world?  What the hell are you?  You're not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you?" 

The silence in the audience was now deafening, and one could sense that this reluctant yet necessary filial indictment had assumed an even sharper resonance after everything the country has been through in these last difficult years.      

McBurney's unusual approach -- with actors stylizing their characterizations in a semi-presentational manner -- wasn't for self-aggrandizing directorial effect.  Those who came out to see Katie Holmes (a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Cruise) and Dianne Wiest (whose understudy, the first-rate Lizbeth Mackay, went on at the matinee I attended), along with Lithgow and Wilson, may not have bargained for such an innovative handling of this warhorse. But emotional expectations were more than satisfied by the harrowing close of the second act.   

Some critics, however, felt as though the production obstructed its actors. Truth be told, I had some difficulty in the first act acclimating to the distorted realism on display.  It would have been easier to understand what McBurney was after had he gone further in an experimental direction.  The subtlety of his choices was as challenging as the presence of so many familiar actors in an unfamiliar acting mode.  But his incremental strategy ultimately paid off where it should -- in heightening the play's absolutely devastating climax.

Business may come off as the greatest stage villain of all, but you have to tip your hat to actors willing to take such risks with the big money machine of Broadway. If someone would have told me a year ago that a regular of People and US Weekly would be working with the artistic director of the internationally acclaimed, envelope-pushing company Complicit√©, I would have chuckled in that smug theater critic way that always makes us such a favorite at parties. But Holmes proves as committed to McBurney's daring vision as her more seasoned cast members. 

How lovely that unexpected advances can still sneak by amid all the tedious headline gloom.   

-- Charles McNulty 

Photo: The cast of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," directed by Simon McBurney at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus