After all the Donald Trump references in recent plays, it’s refreshing to see an actor and director go back to another administration for their hit job.
In the new revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which opened Monday at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, Tracy Letts delivers a Dick Cheney who’s every bit as terrifying as Christian Bale’s in “Vice” — but without the need of all those prosthetics.
Letts isn’t in any way impersonating the former vice president or mimicking his stolid mannerisms. It’s the quiet, focused, driven righteousness of Cheney, replicated here, that makes the actor’s portrait of Miller’s small-town capitalist run amok so captivating. Letts’ Joe Keller normalizes the immoral. And yes, Letts and Cheney do look very much alike, at least from the orchestra of this Roundabout theater.
Unbeknownst to any other character, Kate Keller has been carrying her husband’s two-ton secret on her back for the last few years, ever since this World War II munitions manufacturer sent damaged aircraft engine cylinder heads to the military and several pilots ended up dead. Annette Bening makes us feel the weight of her burden, and as soon as she opens the back-porch door of the Keller home, this Kate is defiant and headstrong but nearly drained. Bening puts that desiccation at the core of her portrayal. She doesn’t quite match her gifted co-star’s ease of performance on stage, but then Kate is a far more morally high-strung character.
She doesn’t want her surviving son, Chris (Benjamin Walker), to go anywhere near her own dead son’s former girlfriend, Ann (Francesca Carpanini), even though the young couple intends to get married. A problem with this revival is that Kate’s right. Chris and Ann don’t make a good couple, at least as awkwardly performed by Walker and Carpanini. The two actors don’t even physically look right together, and that’s never more true than when they’re making out.
Jack O’Brien’s production means to give us a very naturalistic “All My Sons.” Douglas W. Schmidt’s backyard set looks amazingly like what graced the stage for the last two Broadway revivals of Paul Osborn’s pre-WWII Midwestern-set comedy “Morning’s at Seven.” Which is another problem. The grass is a little too green, the wisteria too lavender.
Miller wrote in an era when playwrights had the economic luxury to create a community around their lead characters. Writing today, he would probably have to excise the five supporting characters that are the Kellers’s next-door neighbors (Michael Hayden, Nehal Joshi, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Jenni Barber and Alexander Bello alternating with Monte Greene). The Baylisses and the Lubeys aren’t the folksy lovables of Paul Osborn’s comedy, but under O’Brien’s direction, each of the five actors here has been given his or her big moment to shine. These mini star turns unravel the tight-knit fabric of Miller’s ensemble.
“All My Sons” detonates in the second act when Ann’s brother, George (Hampton Fluker), arrives to deliver the news that their father unjustly took the fall for all those faulty cylinders. Fluker effortlessly navigates the character’s many extremes. Right from his entrance, he’s a hothead on a mission, only to melt under the patriarchy of Kate’s sweet talk and Joe’s offer of employment. Bening and Letts’ manipulation here is breathtaking and almost painful to watch. Just as quickly as he surrenders, Fluker returns his character to that original mission to indict, again at convincing full speed.
A word about O’Brien’s nontraditional casting choices. That approach would work for “Morning’s at Seven” and its sunnier view of small-town America, or even a Sam Gold take on “All My Sons” set in some timeless alternate universe.
But O’Brien creates two interracial families for the Miller drama, set in an otherwise realistically depicted 1947, without comment. Since “All My Sons” is an indictment of capitalism, it’s odd to have a byproduct of that economic system as practiced in the United States simply ignored here. This revival acts as if racism didn’t exist among these kinds of characters at that time, which isn’t that far away from Joe Keller’s attitude regarding his crime.