As I mentioned previously, the main reason for my recent trip to New York City was to see two Broadway shows that Mel really wanted to see. The first was King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson, and you can read about that production HERE.
Then we had a day off, before heading to see All My Sons, Arthur Miller’s first major play, in a production starring Tracy Letts and Annette Bening.
Thought not as well-known as Miller’s later works, All My Sons is a modern classic, and this production really brings his work to life. Set in 1947 (when it was originally staged), what starts out as a snapshot of small-town life quickly turns into the unravelling of a web of deceit, secrets, lies and horror. The play is truly gut-wrenching, and you will be emotionally worn out by the time it’s over.
I’m not going to get too heavily into the plot because it can be a bit ridiculous to write a synopsis of such a classic work, but also because it’s hard to reveal too much of it without spoiling the shocks and surprises along the way. Joe Keller is a successful businessman who was exonerated of selling defective engine parts to the military during the war, resulting in the deaths of twenty-one pilots. His business partner, and former next-door-neighbor, was convicted of that crime and remains in prison. Letts plays Joe, and Bening plays his wife, Kate, who believes that her MIA son, Larry, is still alive, waiting to rescued after disappearing at sea.
On the morning when the play begins, a tree planted in memory of Larry had blown over in a storm. Ann, the daughter of his business partner is arriving for a visit, and she and Joe’s son try to figure out how to explain that Ann, who was the girlfriend of Larry, is in love with Larry’s brother, Chris and they want to get married.
Almost every major character is keeping secrets that can destroy the family.
This production is downright stunning. Not being familiar with the story in advance, I was drawn in by the performances and the plot. The set design by Douglas Schmidt was simply brilliant, which is no mean feat since the entire play takes place in the Keller’s backyard. Director, Jack O’Brien, manages the action on the set perfectly, and the cast is up to the challenge of portraying Miller’s American tragedy.
Tracy Letts, as Joe Keller, perfectly conveys the complexities of a happy, friendly and gregarious man who has seriously compromised ethics. His portrayal of the businessman who survived a scandal is very real, and actually reminded me a bit of my late uncle, Gene Warden, who had a bit in common with Joe Keller in terms of how he treated his partners.
Letts is, of course, a Tony and Pulitzer Award-winning playwright himself, and it’s interesting to note that his most recent work, The Minutes, touches on similiar themes of deceit, secrets, cover-ups and how they relate to the American Dream.
Annette Bening gives a measured performance within a performance as Kate, who outwardly projects confidence and contentment, but whose deep depression over the fate of her son and the actions of her husband come to the forefront as she becomes increasingly numb. This is a quietly powerful performance.
Benjamin Walker’s acclaim for his performance as Joe’s idealistic, yet haunted son, Chris is well-deserved. In the hands of a lesser actor, his character could come across as flat and contradictory, rather than complex and conflicted.
All My Sons is, as I said, a classic of modern drama, and it’s hard to imagine a better production than this current Broadway run. That run has been extended to the end of June, and you may still be able to get tickets. It’s a production of The Roundabout Theatre Company, and is staged at The American Airlines Theater.
Trivia Note: Yes, the band, Twenty-one Pilots, took their name from this play. Also, the play was inspired by a real incident from World War II, but every detail has been fictionalized.