Airplane equipment known to be faulty is nonetheless deployed, it malfunctions mid-flight, and many people die. The executives who should have averted catastrophe instead pocket the profit. There’s a play about it at the Roundabout Theatre Company right now. No, the Roundabout did not commission a gutsy new drama about greed and guilt at Boeing after the horrific crashes of their 737 Max jets. It simply revived All My Sons.
How shocking to think that two years after the end of World War II, Arthur Miller opened this punchy exposé about a war-profiteering industrialist on Broadway. And how humiliating to realize that theater long ceded this cultural space to movies and television. Sure, in the past decades there have been plays (and musicals) about September 11th and the disastrous war on terror, but nothing with the moral fire or emotional heft of Miller’s modern classic. Let’s entertain a little fantasy: Two years after the current occupant of the White House is voted out or impeached, Broadway has a serious, hair-raising family shocker about parents and children, immigrant kids in cages, and MAGA hats. Lynn Nottage? Tony Kushner? Rajiv Joseph? Anyone?
For the time being, we have All My Sons in a handsome account by Jack O’Brien, ardently performed by an outstanding cast. The last revival was a decade ago, a stark, minimalist experiment by English director Simon McBurney, but that ensemble was marred by celebrity casting (Katie Holmes) and the impact was diluted. Here, the parts fit together smoothly for maximum effect. Like the Henrik Ibsen bourgeois tragedies that paved its way, All My Sons is a slow burn that devastates you by the end. It starts off folksy and humorous, but ends with death and tears. Stay with it and you will leave truly shaken.
Tracy Letts has the central role of Joe Keller, a Midwestern factory owner whose cracked cylinders caused the deaths of 21 airmen during the war. Joe’s deputy, Steve Deever, went to jail for knowingly sending out the equipment. Steve testified that Joe approved the cylinders, but the boss pleaded ignorance, and was exonerated. The play, which takes place over about 15 hours, depicts a moral reckoning in the Keller clan: the staunch, self-justifying Joe; one son who’s MIA in the war; a living son, Chris (Benjamin Walker); and Joe’s steely, stalwart wife, Kate (Annette Bening), still clinging to the hope that her son is alive. The missing son’s ex-girlfriend, Ann (Francesca Carpanini), wants to marry Chris and – in case these threads aren’t interwoven enough – Ann’s father is the man who took the rap for Joe. Ann’s brother George (Hampton Fluker) shows up in the second act as the catalyst that makes Chris realize the depths of his father’s complicity. In the third act, things get Greek really fast.
Letts, a longtime member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf and the maverick playwright behind August: Osage County and the pulpy little shocker Bug, brings natural Midwest machismo to Joe. Tall, stocky, balding and blandly inscrutable, Letts bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney, another wartime parasite overdue for justice. (I suspect mine won’t be the only review to namecheck Boeing and Cheney.) Letts knows how to vary a light, comical mode with eruptions of rage and defiance, and his canny, muscular, ultimately terrifying performance is a master class in the banality of evil. Letts doesn’t let Joe beg for the audience’s love and understanding, which makes him all the more human and real.
Keeping pace with Letts, Bening crafts a portrait of a woman hardened and shrunken by anticipatory grief, staying alive on sheer willpower and magical thinking. No stranger to roles glamorous or worldly, Bening adopts an unvarnished, pinched look as a frontier matron straining every muscle to keep reality at bay. Walker endows Chris – scarred from the war and desperate to bury his brother’s memory – with wry decency and a palpable sensuality in his love for Ann. And in the smaller but crucial role of George, Fluker creates a subtle, bruised portrait of a young man carrying the sins of his father on his back.
In a spring that – apart from Oklahoma! and What the Constitution Means to Me – has been fairly disappointing, I recommend this keen, satisfying revival, especially if you’ve never seen the piece before. Even so, I’m aware that, season after season, it seems we’re always digging up the same two dozen titles by Miller, Williams, O’Neill and (God help us) Mamet. That’s one side of an industry-wide sickness. More 20th-century authors of color, for example, should be dusted off, given top-notch productions, and added to the discourse. Until artistic directors take more risks, we’ll keep returning to the same dead, white, American males. The other side of the problem regards the future health of the art: Until we start commissioning new plays on current events, we’ll keep looking to Miller for timely drama, not our own backyard.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.