Review: Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ With All Its Seams Showing

Plays with a large moral vision are so last century. Our taste now is for the miniature and metaphoric — works too exquisite to live outside the living room.

Or maybe our capacity for shame has shrunk.

But in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” originally produced in 1947, domesticity is just a backdrop. The drama takes place outdoors, amid trees and sky in an Ohio backyard soon after World War II. Its anger and ambition are likewise elemental.

Too bad, then, that the Roundabout Theater Company revival that opened on Monday at the American Airlines Theater reaches the play’s level only intermittently, like a poorly tuned radio. Jack O’Brien’s literal-minded production, starring Tracy Letts and Annette Bening, does not make a resonant case for the drama today.

That’s odd because although the play has its share of problems, irrelevance will never be one of them. You don’t have to dig deep into current headlines to find eerie parallels to Miller’s story. Based on a real wartime event, it tells of a manufacturer of airplane parts whose defective product wound up killing 21 pilots on missions over Australia. Boeing, anyone?

The crux of the drama is that the parts were known to be defective. The question is: Who authorized their delivery anyway?

Both Joe Keller, the boss, and Steve Deever, his underling, served time, after a trial, for doing so. But Keller, claiming he was sick on the day of the deliveries and that Deever made the decision alone, was exonerated on appeal. Deever is still in prison as the action begins some years later.

In Miller’s cosmology, Keller (Mr. Letts) might as well be called Winner and Deever, Loser. The play sees in the contrast between the former neighbors a larger fault in the American psyche, one that turns businessmen into boogeymen and fathers into monsters. It is Keller’s principled son, Chris (Benjamin Walker), who bears the brunt of the revelations that emerge one day in August, after a portentous thunderstorm.

“This is the land of the great big dogs,” he cries. “You don’t love a man here, you eat him!”

The revelations come a little too neatly, thanks to a surprise visit and a long-withheld letter. The entwining of the two families, whose children grew up together in this very backyard, is also overdetermined. Steve’s daughter, Ann (Francesca Carpanini), was all but engaged to Chris’s brother, Larry, before Larry was killed in the war. Now she has returned from exile in New York, hoping to marry the besotted Chris instead.

Though Keller is the bigger role, Kate is the show’s emotional center and endless mystery. What does she know? Does she really know she knows it? Her neurotic adaptations to ongoing grief — including strange headaches and a mania for horoscopes — at some point morph into something else. But what?

Ms. Bening goes deepest of the four leads in exploring the muck at the bottom of her character’s personality. She also has terrific technique, both vocal and otherwise. But the opacity of the production overall means we still can’t read her with any clarity, and the play acquires a weird wobble at its core.

Mr. Letts has the opposite problem. Perhaps because he wears glasses that lend him a striking resemblance to Dick Cheney, his Keller is all too patently slimy and, despite a few outbursts, unchanging. The events of the play seem to have little effect on him, until suddenly, in the last few beats, they do.

This may make sense of the plot but does nothing for its emotional underpinnings. The production is almost never moving, except when Ann’s brother, George, shows up intending to expose everyone’s lies. Watching Kate tame him with strategic applications of love and grape juice — and watching George (Hampton Fluker) melt beautifully from avenger to puppy — you glimpse what the play can be.

Mr. Fluker, incidentally, is black. When the Roundabout announced this revival of “All My Sons,” it was to be directed by Gregory Mosher, whose concept for it included color-conscious casting. (The Deevers were to be black and the Kellers white.) After the Miller estate nixed that plan, Mr. Mosher quit the production and was replaced by Mr. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien’s production is colorblind instead: The actors have been cast regardless of race, which works perfectly well in itself.

But if Mr. Mosher’s approach would have raised issues Miller did not contemplate — issues the text leaves little room to tackle — it at least would have opened a fresh avenue of exploration.

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