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‘The Minutes,’ Too Close For Comfort, a WOW!

(l-r) JEFF STILL as Mr. Assalone, TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and CLIFF CHAMBERLAIN as Mr. Breeding. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

The beauty of Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro is that there is no hearty mention of political parties in Steppenwolf’s “very American” production whose patriotic music blares as the audience takes their seats at Studio 54. The music (Andre Pluess), and the City Council’s meeting room set design (David Zinn), remind us that it is in the small towns and cities of our democratic government that the American Dream comes to fruition, as it moves toward the hope that in our country, all men and women are created equal and are guaranteed their inalienable rights stated in the Declaration of Independence as under-girded by the constitution.

During The Minutes, the veil is lifted so we may watch democracy in action, vaguely referenced by Big Cherry’s Mayor Superba (Tracey Letts). What occurs on this momentous rainy night, when the city council gathers in a quorum to conduct its business, is a bludgeoning reminder of our blind hypocrisy regarding our pretensions to democratic self- government. When uncontrollable atavistic compulsions in our natures arise and dominate the best of us, is it even possible to govern with equanimity, Lett’s and the creative team ask?

This question appears to be at the heart of Letts’ rich and profound exploration of an Everyman/Everywoman city council, one of whose members we discover toward the last twenty minutes of the play is a whistleblower. What happens to him reveals the power of what America can and should mean vs. what America is revealed to be, in its local governments which often usurp our nation’s lofty principles and subvert them into governance by raw, destructive emotions born out of traditions of fear and hatred.

The point is made that the elected officials that govern Big Cherry, the central focus of this fascinating production, are neither Republican or Democratic. Nor at first do we anticipate that this council is anything but a representative democratic institution that functions as a proper governmental council should, with an emphasis on doing what is “the best” for the constituents who elected these men and women. In addition to Mayor Superba the board members include a bi-racial, gender appropriate, non-ageist group who look to be inclusive and bring inclusive issues to the fore as presented during the meeting.

The officials include Ms. Innes (Blair Brown), Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman), Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy), Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller), Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy), Mr. (Austin Pendleton), Mr. Peel (Noah Reid) and Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still). Note Letts’ clues of character with the particular, irony weighted selection of names. The names push the envelope of belief to convey the play’s sardonic tone at the beginning.

Vitally, the tone and humor increasingly morph toward revelation of the mystery of the previous week’s minutes that end in the shocking banality of evil at the play’s conclusion. As the production devolves into atavistic horror, we understand the city council’s cultural appropriation of the Sioux’s tribal dance. Incredibly open to interpretation, it symbolizes how they approach their concept of city council government. They attempt to empower themselves as warriors of their mission which they take to a radical extreme, defying the national, constitutional mandate while wickedly, hypocritically posing to uplift it.

(l-r) JESSIE MUELLER as Ms. Johnson, NOAH REID as Mr. Peel, JEFF STILL as Mr. Assalone, TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and CLIFF CHAMBERLAIN as Mr. Breeding. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

The play drives to the heart of the dangerous atavism in this nation on both political divides without stating “Democrats” or “Republicans;” the party is not the point. Human nature is the point. Whether its book bannings, “don’t say gay,” Southern botch job of COVID as politicians and QAnon representatives scream “my body my choice,” then turn around and reverse “my body my choice” women’s rights with abortion bans, or the smear job screamed out by rabid #metoo pretense, pushing the ouster of former Governor Cuomo, equanimity and rationalism aren’t to be found.

Letts’ drives this home…revealing how the mundane often cloaks the dark, emotional abyss underneath. If only Satan sported horns, chains of diabolism and wore a name tag hailing his identity. Too often the sweetest people are the most malevolent, especially if they are working for your best interests in government. Ah, “something wicked this way comes and it’s the human heart.” BEWARE!

Without going into the specific plot points because there is no spoiler alert, at the top of the play, Letts introduces us to the EVERYMEN AND EVERYWOMEN city council members who are “average” individuals of a cross range of the “middle class.” At the outset, as they arrive, they move into their friendship groups, to elicit support from each other for their proposals that they intend to present at this evening’s meeting.

Throughout the play Mr. Peel questions what happened at the previous week’s meeting which he missed because his mother passed away. Mayor Superba and Mr. Hanratty casually dismiss Mr. Peel’s questions at the outset. However, Mr. Blake suggests that he will be rebuffed roundly and warns him that Mr. Assalone will lead the others against him so he won’t get anywhere with finding out what occurred.

Lett’s cleverly sets up the conflict focusing on what happened, why no one wants to discuss the previous meeting and what happened to Mr. Carp (Ian Barford in a profound dramatic performance) who is absent and apparently is no longer on the council. With a weird dismissal of Mr. Peel’s questions which under the law must be answered, we and Mr. Peel are set to wondering whether this is a cover-up and who and why the previous meeting cannot be easily discussed. We also wonder, along with Mr. Peel, what happened to Mr. Carp and why the duly elected official is no longer on the council. Was it Mr. Carp’s choice, Mayor Superba’s choice or the council’s choice that he left?

(l-r) JESSIE MUELLER as Ms. Johnson and NOAH REID as Mr. Peel. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

This relatively new council member Mr. Peel, who we discover a bit later had become friendly with Mr. Carp and supported his cause is no wiser about the circumstances as the meeting comes to order with the typical prayer and pledge of allegiance as all governmental meetings follow with sleepy, traditional protocol. Thus, we forget Mr. Peel’s questions and concern and with the demonstrated banality of what we’re familiar with, settle into regularity until Mr. Oldfield presents his case for an important consideration, an empty parking space.

Oldfield portrayed by the esteemed and wonderfully LOL, on-point Austin Pendleton conveys much of the humor in Lett’s The Minutes. In whatever he does Pendleton is a standout of authenticity and moment. Once Mr. Oldfield and his subtle request about the parking space is dismissed, the business at hand is presented.

Mr. Hanratty and Mr. Blake have their pet projects which eventually are objected to and voted down. Interestingly, the figure on the fountain that Hanratty wants to renovate gives rise to how the figure represents the foundation of the city. The members who are in the know provide the dramatic re-enactment of the mythic Battle of Mackie Creek that the figure’s heroism is dedicated to in the fountain. Only Mr. Peel is not familiar with the history of Big Cherry because it is his wife’s birthplace, not his. Thus, he does not take part and watches as Big Cherry’s history rises up from its past in a re-enactment.

All take part, even Mr. Oldfield, who provides the horse hoofs’ sounds. Their “theatrics” are humorous and the actors, as their council counterparts really ham it up appropriately to audience applause. Thus, we are reminded of such mythic re-enactments that traditionally dot the nation as harmless fun. However, the Civil War re-enactments are perhaps more than that for those who take part yearly (before COVID). Letts and the creative team call into question their significance and symbolism. To what end do those go to the trouble to show up and fight with accurate replicas of guns, cannons, outfits, and some even living on the fields for a week or more to “remember.” Curious.

(l-r) TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and NOAH REID as Mr. Peel. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

Letts opens one’s eyes to conceptual meaning made physical. With regard to the Civil War, the devastation and destruction…one questions why re-enact it yearly? How can bloodshed (the greatest number of casualties in a war before COVID) and violence be fun? (Interestingly, COVID will have killed twice as many in the same time period. Thus far, there are a recorded number of US deaths at over one million twenty thousand on Worldometer in a two-year period.) However, the re-enactment is relished by the council members because it manifests glory in their history. It binds them in community and makes their lives as council members meaningful. Of course, the further symbolism and importance of this act blossoms by the conclusion.

Mr. Peel, with knowledge of what the previous meeting was about but with an inability to attend it and give support to Mr. Carp who was making a presentation, wants to discover the resolution of Mr. Carp’s petition. It is revealed in the minutes of the meeting which Mayor Superba has refused to release. However, a way is made. Eventually, in a flashback, we get to see why Mr. Peel wants to know what happened. And we also discover why Mr. Carp is no longer on the city council. The question remains with this revelation and the solving of the mystery of the minutes Mr. Peel has sought, will he stay on the council which his deceased mother never wanted him to be on in the first place?

Criticism has been made of Letts’ leaps in plot, sometimes illogical notions, etc. I would put it to those critics. This is not a play about linear logic, refined judgments and profound political moment. It is about us. and what we have to fear in ourselves. In that the play should make you weep. It won’t. It is not only about this nation, it is about human nature. In that it is timeless. Like most theater that attempts to get some of who we are down, it is irreparably flawed. Thus, it should be left as is.

Kudos to all the actors for their strong performances in this ensemble piece as well as the director who aptly shepherded them so you could hear a pin drop from the audience the last “minutes” of the play. Kudos to Ana Kuzmanic (costume design) Brian MacDevitt (lighting design), Ty Defoe (choreographer), Tom Watson (hair & wig design) and see above for the other designers mentioned.

You need to see this a couple of times to let it sift your soul, or not if you hate that kind of thing. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.studio54theatre.com/events/the-minutes-25/#.YnLPLNPMJPY

‘Linda Vista’ by Tracy Letts, a Sharp, Edgy Romp Through Sex, Love and Male Menopause

Caroline Neff, Ian Barford, Troy West, Linda Vista, Dexter Bullard, Tracy Letts

(L to R): Caroline Neff, Ian Barford, Troy West in ‘Linda Vista,’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Steppenwolf’s production of Linda Vista by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tracy Letts is a wild ride through aging masculinity receding in a “heady” pattern like one found in male baldness. Once it begins, the decline is precipitous and unwieldy if not ragingly unattractive. Letts takes the “older” concept for a separated, licentious boy-man and runs with it to its hysterical, one-liners climax of symphonic madness. Then he concludes with a searingly poignant, light-shining breakthrough of hope for the protagonist who at the last shot becomes appealing and sensitively human.

Letts’ Linda Vista, with well time and paced direction by Dexter Bullard sports exceptionally crisp, crackling dialogue. Letts’ characters are mundane and real. However, Letts engages us by giving them sardonic, self-effacing, humorous lines and ripping authenticity. The protagonist, the soon-to-be-divorced philanderer Wheeler (Ian Barford builds warmth and humanity with evolving emotional grist) is just this side of the sad-sack in the titular film Marty (1955) about a guy who is single, alone and has high expectations of hooking up with a beauteous gal. What diverts Wheeler from the more empathetic Marty-type is his arrogance and his self-depricating humor which reveals he doesn’t think he isn’t “all that.” In fact he believes himself brilliant and quite the “ladies man,” though he avers the opposite.

Wheeler’s humor is a double-edged sword. It prevents him from blowing his brains out during the holidays or becoming a psychotic and isolated Incel. On the other hand it also prevents him from self-revelation and self-intimacy. He does not reflect on the source of his inner devastation and self-loathing which leads him to repeat destructive patterns and crash and burn up relationships.

Linda Vista,Ian Barford,Cora Vander Broek, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, ‘Linda Vista’ by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Letts’s characterization of this self-enfeebled boy-man who refuses to grow up pings of all the isms (ageism, sexism, chauvinism, etc.) which Wheeler buys into surreptitiously though he would be loathe to admit it up front. As a Caucasian male from a middle class background adhering to his demographic mores, he is manipulative and macho; empathizing with women is not “his thing.” Understanding is only to be exhibited to get somewhere with a woman. It never goes beyond skin deep!

Letts clues us into Wheeler’s basic flaws and male-privileged machismo attitudes at the top of the play as he comes on to his co-worker Anita (the excellent Caroline Neff). After she rebuffs him by stating she is trying to get herself together and can’t be involved with a “mess,” he quips manipulatively, “Thanks for saying ‘mess’ instead of ‘hot mess,’ which is a phrase I can’t stand.” Then Wheeler further adds, after thanking her for her honesty, “And he was humiliated.” Regardless of how forward and inappropriate his “come on” to a co-worker is, his humor endears and propels him into a seeming humanity. This is a blind as Letts adroitly underscores throughout the play.

Wheeler’s and Anita’s boss, Michael (the fine Troy West) is a foil to whom we compare Wheeler. Indeed, there are men who are so much worse than Wheeler. An unattractive and uber gross lecher, Michael ogles Anita’s breasts and makes demeaning, scurrilous comments about having sex with her. Thus, Wheeler’s light interaction and lunch invite shows him to be the proper angel with Anita. On the other hand Wheeler doesn’t chide or reprimand Michael for his salacious, untoward comments and indeed, is his sounding board and encourager behind Anita’s back. He has to learn better. In these scenes the LOL quips are proportionate to the EWW of West’s soul crippled Michael. Letts’ dialogue is masterful.

Chantal Thuy, Ian Barford, Linda Vista, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard,

Chantal Thuy, Ian Barford, ‘Linda Vista,’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Even though Wheeler tosses out sardonic replies that Michael accepts as good-natured ribbing put-downs, he doesn’t bother to call Michael out for his snide and self-damaging ridiculousness. Wheeler’s silence is agreement. It indicates that what Michael expresses, Wheeler thinks. Objectifying women doesn’t make for healthy male-female relationships. Indeed, it reflects an uncontrolled sickness of the soul. Boys will be boys turns into sick men will become sicker men. By the end of Linda Vista, Letts clarifies this theme roundly.

It is this graceful attempt at “being real” to avoid being honest and sincere that entrances Jules, a date/friend that Wheeler’s friends, couple Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy) set him up with. Initially, Wheeler and Jules (the superb Cora Vander Broek) get along swimmingly and, naturally, after her own “hot mess” breakup, Jules falls hard for Wheeler and is intimate with him almost immediately. Their sex scene is hysterical (Vander Broek in particular) and surprisingly on point as they both try to complete their satisfaction. It is also revealing. Wheeler apparently as a fifty-something doesn’t need Viagra. But Jules in her thirties (a peak age for women’s sexuality) “needs something” because of her emotional issues.

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, Chantal Thuy, Linda Vista, Dexter Bullard, Tracy Letts

(L to R): Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, Chantal Thuy in ‘Linda Vista’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

The twist is humorous and we begin to understand that underneath Wheeler’s “unrestrained libido” which brought him to betray his wife during an affair is a lurking fear. He needs to go deep but remains shallow and sex is an easy diversion. On the other hand Jules is authentic as she attempts her own “thing.” Clearly, they need to talk, but they don’t.

Letts’ Wheeler progresses toward some moment of epiphany by way of an episodic journey through women which he underestimates and relates to only as those he bounces across his intelligence and couples with sexually. He does not seem to perceive women as an opportunity, a ready and understanding help-meet with whom to learn and grow. Though the possibility for this occurs with Jules who encourages his photographic artistry, he eschews her attempt to go for the complicated. Conveniently, around the time that his relationship with Jules is about to take a turn into the profound, he throws her over for a twenty-something whose boyfriend dumped her and who initially needs a place to stay.

The scene where Wheeler breaks up with Jules is a cut-out of the “ending a relationship” break up scenes: the male blames himself for not being good enough for the female. This in itself is an ironic send up of the lies that human beings groove themselves into without thought or introspection. Naturally, the return cut-out appears. Jules confronts Wheeler with her suspicion that there is “another woman.” We understand that Wheeler most probably has repeated this scenario again and again before his marriage and during it. And perhaps Jules has repeated such a scene during her previous break-up. For the male, there is never another woman! However, with Wheeler (the irony of his name becomes more pronounced as Letts propels his character driven by his own blindnesses as a typical wheeler dealer in his relationships) as with other men, of course there is that other woman!

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, Sally Murphy, Linda Vista, Jim True-Frost, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

(L to R): Jim True-Frost, Cora Vander Broek, In Barford, Caroline Neff in ‘Linda Vista,’ directed by Dexter Bullard, written by Tracy Letts (Joan Marcus)

The “other woman” and unfaithfulness are the macho lines that men roll down. They must be unfaithful and encourage each other to do so. This is their ancient more, birthright, legacy, folkway; they can’t “leave home without it.” Then, what would “being male” turn into? The unthinkable, the impossible. Letts’ characterization of Wheeler slams all the tropes and to the seeing audience member, the sardonic quips that Wheeler employs schmooze him past any redemptive efforts to do the work to self-correct.

His friend Paul senses Wheeler’s avoidance and though Wheeler affirms at the top of the play he shouldn’t get involved with any woman as his divorce is being settled and he has been cut up about it, Paul ignores Wheeler. He understands his friend’s “needs” and more importantly, understands his machismo is at stake. What??? Is Wheeler going to join an Ashram and meditate to heal himself? Heaven forbid. He’ll move into the next relationship as unwhole, unhealthy and flawed as he is to once more be bowed and bloodied afterward. Perhaps Paul isn’t Wheeler’s true friend after all. Perhaps he too, like Wheeler, is blind.

Jim True-Frost, Sally Murphy, Linda Vista, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

(L to R): Jim True-Frost, Sally Murphy, ‘Linda Vista,’ directed by Dexter Bullard, written by Tracy Letts (Joan Marcus)

Obsessed with Minnie who is pregnant and lives with him, Wheeler throws himself into her youth and off-beat, exotic, defensive curtness. Also, with hysterical “cool cat” aplomb, he gets a tattoo, wears leather and chains and limps a lot because of the “amazing” sex (too funny). Paul, without encouraging or dissuading him has massaged him with the middle age, male menopausal meme to “enjoy” your life, “you only live once,” yada yada, which is precisely what Wheeler shouldn’t embrace. His life is within and why he is placing himself in situations which will result in further self-recrimination and self-loathing makes little sense. But Letts has chosen this as Wheeler’s path, for he is the American white “everyman.” God help him!

What Wheeler seeks is not in Minnie who is the apotheosis of a “hot mess.” Nevertheless, Wheeler becomes the convenient lump of clay she molds with sex and no strings attached. What is attached becomes heightened obfuscation, confusion and depression. Minnie is the perfect object, for with her Wheeler will batter his soul to oblivion which Minnie helps him do in a particularly poignant scene. On his knees Wheeler worships his idol like an oblivious and scorned mendicant.

Ian Barford pulls out all stops emotionally in the climactic scenes with Jules and Minnie who are equally superb. Indeed, after Jules delivers a spurning I am “strong” speech to Wheeler, women in the audience applauded and cheered. That scene in particular resonated as the actors hit the emotional notes beautifully. During these scenes for the first time, we understand Wheeler’s desperation. He is not seeking forgiveness from Jules or the need to be with Minnie or any woman. In his pleadings, Wheeler is looking for the last vestiges of escape and distraction from himself. But both women close their doors. Wheeler will have to confront his aloneness and ask the hard questions without his wall of humor to hide behind. Will he be able to do the work? It’s a completely different cycle for him.

Linda Vista,Ian Barford,Cora Vander Broek, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, in ‘Linda Vista,’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Letts has crafted a brilliant, hysterical and ironic expose of the male-female dynamic and social ethos engineered by our culture. The play hot buttons the seminal issues of the gender divide. Fear guides talented men and women toward using sex or gender as a distraction away from their core understanding of themselves. It is the key way human beings use humans as shiny objects to displace the looming inner abyss of misery and sadness. But eventually the morass of emotions rears its horrific head if individuals do not heed the storm warnings.

With memorable humor (the one liners are so incredibly, rhythmically honed to needle points that fly to their mark) nuanced characterizations and a refined episodic arc of development, the audience remains clear-eyed and engaged to note the varied themes. Letts’ good will evolves and reminds us to what is the salvation for many souls: employing the artist within each of us. Affirming that vital theme as true, I wholly applaud Linda Vista, the director-Dexter Bullard, and the moment-to-moment skills of the ensemble who have rendered this comedic, thought-provoking play into a meaningful evening of delight.

Kudos to Todd Rosenthal for his utilitarian scenic design, Laura Bauer for her costume design, Marcus Doshi for lighting design and Richard Woodbury for sound design (the irony of the jet fly-over was pointed and humorous). Linda Vista runs with one intermission at the Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street between 7th and 8th until 10th November unless it is extended. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

‘All My Sons,’ Exceptional Performances Infuse Miller’s Play With Grist and Power

Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, All My Sons, Arthur Miller, All My Sons, Jack O'Brien

Tracy Letts, Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus)

Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons speaks with resounding energy about our current time in its themes and characterizations despite its setting 72-years-ago in an America that no longer exists. Directed with acute insight and sensitivity, Jack O’Brien opens the play with the shock of a lightening crash as sounds of thunder dissolve into the droning thrum of a plane. Projected on the curtain we see the visual of a doomed plane speeding toward its demise.

Later, we discover the symbolism. During the fierce storm which destroys a memorial tree in the backyard, Kate Keller (the fabulous Annette Bening) wakes with a nightmare about her son, Larry, a WWII pilot who is MIA. O’Brien adroitly realizes Kate’s nightmare and the storm which destroys Larry’s memorial to foreshadow the coming turmoil in the next day and a half that changes the lives of the Keller family forever.

Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker, Jack O'Brien, Arthur Miller, All My Sons

Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker in Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus)

This auspicious beginning, however, is quelled by the sunny atmosphere of August in the gorgeous, bucolic, serenity of an upper middle class neighborhood where Joe Keller (the superb Tracy Letts), Kate and son Chris (an emotional, authentic portrayal by Benjamin Walker) reside in peace and plenty. The exquisite set by Douglas W. Schmidt invites with its blooming, well-trimmed wisteria vines regaling a square gazebo and homely, comfortable patio with companionable chairs. There, we imagine that pleasant and lively conversations have taken place over the years. Miller never takes us inside to reveal the intimacies of family interactions, a vital clue to this family. They cannot be intimate with each other for fear of cracking the image they present to each other and themselves.

All the play’s action is “out in the open,” “in plain sight,” an irony filled with contradictions. This living “in the public eye” belies the truth that threads throughout the play in one of Miller’s searing themes. In one form of another, the human condition is to live in lies and rationalizations that mask painful truths. The best of us attempt to confront and work through these to get to the core and evolve to “be better” as Chris suggests. Nevertheless, it is easier for us to keep our miserable truths hidden in the shadows while we live in hypocrisy.

It is this hypocrisy that eats away at the soul and mind in  a terrible corruption that eventually destroys. An extension of this theme of the individuals is the theme of a  society which lives in hypocrisy in a culture founded on lies. The end result is the rot blooms, the lies abide and the culture no longer distinguishes the difference between facts and obfuscations. The cultural dissolution that occur is not even recognizable to the national body politic.

Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, Jack O'Brien, Arthur Miller, All My Sons

Tracy Letts, Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus)

Clearly, Miller reveals this is so for his protagonist Joe Keller and the neighborhood and society which enables Joe to maintain his untenable soul condition. In the backstory, Keller was found guilty of negligence in manufacturing defective aircraft parts that ended up bringing 21 pilots to their deaths. Joe and partner/neighbor Steve Deever, end up serving prison time. Joe appeals and is exonerated, foisting off the blame on Steve who is held accountable for the defective engines being sent out. Steve loses everything including his house and the love of his children who move away as he serves out his prison sentence.

When Joe returns home to neighborhood whispers of “murderer,” he holds his head high, fronts with his new business manufacturing household appliances, makes a ton of money and re-engages the friendship of his neighbors. In a few years he re-establishes the honor and integrity he once held through hard work and a well-meaning, generous, jovial public image. He does all of this for the benefit of his family, and especially for his son Chris who made it out of WWII alive and who will inherit the business.

As the details of the past are revealed, in subsequent acts we gradually understand the family dynamic. Stalwart and unshakable are Kate’s and Chris’ support of Joe during the trial and after feeding into the presumptions that he is a vindicated man with a restored public image. We also note the full blown love relationship Chris has with Steve’s daughter, Larry’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini). Ann moved away after the trial, but writes to Chris and they pledge their love.. She comes to visit Chris, Kate and Joe to solidify their marriage plans with Joe and Kate from whom they’ve kept their love secret. Chris and Ann fear Kate will strongly oppose their marriage because “Larry is alive” and Ann must lovingly wait for him.

As the sunlight shines on Joe and his neighbor Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden) and they chat about Ann’s visit, we have no sense of any underlying difficulties. O’Brien’s and the actors’ skill abides in the gradual unraveling of the characters’ consciousness, as each attempts to maintain the intricate bulwark of falsehoods that have carried them through three years of Larry’s absence and Joe’s exoneration, both chimaeras.

Hampton Fluker, Benjamin Walker, Francesca Carpanini, Jack O'Brien, Arthur Miller, All My Sons

Hampton Fluker (foreground) Benjamin Walker, Francesca Carpanini in Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus

Lies are central to this family’s “wholeness” and “health,” as lies are central to America’s dominant “greatness” after the war. In secret, unbeknownst to us until the conclusion, each suppresses their guilt and fear rather than to confront the painful truth head on and bring it out “in the open” to heal. Kate and Joe are stuck in time, mired in the past. Joe recognizes Kate’s insistence that Larry’s “being alive” is a “fantasy.” But he goes along with it to comfort her and himself and avoid any discussion about the possible alternatives.

Likewise, Chris attempts to forge ahead but is locked in his own fears about his brother. It is no small irony that he chooses his brother’s girlfriend to wive and force the issue of Larry’s MIA by bringing her home to mom. Indeed, it is as if he is keeping Larry’s ghost hovering. Ann is the last person his mother will accept as his bride as long as “Larry is alive.” Chris, like his parents, is conflicted and lives with the guilt of his brother’s ghostly presence.

 

Each of the family members has created justifications; the more the truth threatens, the more elaborate the excuses. Ultimately, these reside in “I did it for you”-Joe, Kate or blaming others, “you made me”-Ann, Chris. Unable to work through the traumas  to heal, they tiptoe around each other, wearing masks of goodness, righteousness and faith. The only one who believes these images is themselves.

The neighborhood encourages the family in their fantasies, as the larger society encourages ideologies about America’s goodness. However, as the play progresses, the Bayliss’s (Michael Hayden, Jenni Barber) candidly reveal everyone in the town believes Joe is guilty and Larry was killed by a defective engine. (the truth that Ann brings in a letter is worse).

Eventually, the truth is revealed when George Deever comes to confront them about Joe’s guilt, and Ann reads a letter revealing where Larry is. As George, Hampton Fluker’s, sorrow and yearning to be in the past with the family’s illusions before the hellish incident of negligence happened is beautifully graded and nuanced with poignance. Fluker’s emotional range from judgmental anger, love for the family to, indictment of their duplicity is beautifully developed.

Francesca Carpanini’s Ann approaches this visit with the Kellers as a developing revelation of her “love” for Chris which is founded in loneliness. Carpanini’s emotional range also solidifies her portrayal of Ann’s self-interest and wish to rid Kate of her illusions forever to extricate Chris from Kate’s hold over him. Her performance as the foil and enemy to the family is well rendered.

When Carpanini’s Ann reads the letter, it is a fascinating mixture of emotions. On the one hand she attempts to “help” by revealing the truth, a devastation that will most probably destroy Kate’s well being, but she does it anyway. When it backfires and Chris, Kate and Joe react counter to what she anticipates, she backpedals in an apologetic excuse blaming the family for “forcing her.” She is desperate to recapture Chris, but it’s too late. It is then she understands the length to which the family has unified against the truth which she selfishly used to move things her way.

Tracy Letts, All My Sons, Arthur Miller, Annette Bening, Benjamin Walker, Hampton Fluker, Jack O'Brien

(L to R): Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, Hampton Fluker, in ‘All My Sons,’ directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus)

Up to the point of domino revelations at the conclusion, Annette Bening’s portrayal as Kate Keller is a masterpiece of shifting emotions. She is like a tiger who must keep the family together at all costs and will use her cunning against anyone (like Ann or George) who threatens their circle. Thus, as Kate, Bening makes the reality that Larry is alive amazingly palpable. She is the mortar that holds the bricks Chris and Joe fashion into a wall to close themselves off against the truth. The structure is a protection to keep them from looking within to their self-hatreds, guilt and dishonor. If the bulwark of illusions cracks, they would attack and destroy each other; thus, to keep them safe, she sacrifices herself as “the crazy one” by basing her every thought and action around the spin about Larry and Joe.

The truth that George and Ann (ironic it takes Steve’s kids to do this) brings, she attempts to forestall with distractions luring George with love. But it is she who provides the damning piece of evidence to George who hands the sledgehammer to Ann. It is Ann who crashes down the structure that the family has unconsciously built to safe themselves and their self-righteous image to the public.

Annette Bening converts Kate’s belief into the driving force of will which lives and breathes and resurrects Larry’s presence. Bening is stunning in how she effects this, every moment she lives onstage. Her authenticity as she strikes the notes of Kate’s insistence and determination is so starkly alive, it gives Lett’s Joe and Walker’s Chris the charge and fluidity to carry that reality into their own portrayals making them vibrate with authenticity. Her good will toward George turns him off his intentions to indict Joe and the family with his Joe’s terrible abuse of his father Steve.

Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker, All My Sons, Jack O'Brien, Arthur Miller

Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker in Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons,’ directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus)

How Walker, Letts and Bening adeptly shepherded by O’Brien establish the nexus of Larry’s being both alive and a ghost who haunts all of them is just brilliant. It is the linchpin of the play and all of the action depends upon their getting this right which they do with spot-on intensity.

The more desperately Joe and Chris attempt to move away from Larry’s ghost, the greater Kate digs in (with her telepathy, her reading signs, her dream, her understanding of the Larry’s astrological chart).  Chris’ selection of Ann, Larry’s girlfriend, as his future wife and his asking her to visit to end Kate’s faith about Larry. only exacerbates it. Bening and the others are mesmerizing during this dynamic of thrust and parry of unconscious desires to expurgate their guilt and exorcise Larry from their midst. Kate resists Ann’s presence and the marriage from the outset of her suspicions. Letts’ Joe never argues with Kate to counter her about the marriage. Miller makes it clear, Kate is unstoppable in her resistance to the marriage. The irony is that ultimately, Larry stops it. His voice comes in a letter from beyond the grave. And the revelation, one that Kate has feared all destroys the family unity.

Anette Bening, Jack O'Brien, Arthur Miller, All My Sons, Al My Sons

Annette Bening in ‘All My Sons,’ written by Arthur Miller, directed by Jack O’Brien (Joan Marcus)

Until the letter Letts, like Bening, is so invested, we are convinced that Joe is exonerated. Even Walker’s Chris cannot hold him accountable as they confront one another after George’s visit in a terrific scene that uncovers their souls. But it is only after Joe reads the letter himself, that he understands what he must do.

This sterling production especially reveals the verities and timelessness of Miller’s play. Joe Keller redeems himself at the end and leaves a legacy Kate knew in her heart was coming, but the pain was so great she couldn’t confront it until Joe does. It is Chris who is left to assemble the pieces of his shattering into a new ethos.

Miller’s tragic elements are the final apotheosis that uplift us to want to be “better than that,” but leave us knowing that if we were in this family’s shoes, we would probably do the same. In the currency of our time, self-righteousness and blaming the “others” has become a profitable boon. Such hypocrisy Miller suggests in Joe’s pointed aria at the end, which he eventually realizes is the last lie that must fall with himself.

The conclusion mounts to a climax of power and poignance and delivers the blow that Miller desires and O’Brien perfectly crashes down on the audience. This tour de force of sensational ensemble work is perhaps the best iteration I’ve seen of this play to date. At its core, the production has delivered Miller’s thematic wisdom from start to finish. The ensemble’s prodigious talent at hitting the bulls-eye with each and every portrayal makes this production the incredible rendering it is.

Kudos to the creative team: Jane Greenwood (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) John Gromada (Sound Design) Jeff Sugg (Video and Projection Design) Bob James (Original Music) Douglas W. Schmidt (Set Design)

All My Sons runs with one intermission at The American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. It is in a limited run until 23rd June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

 

 

 

 

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