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Monday
Apr292019

Annette Bening Returns to Broadway After a 32-Year Absence in Arthur Miller's 'All My Sons'

 Annette Bening

HENRY EDWARDS - New York - April 29, 2018

All My Sons” is the second of Arthur Miller’s 17 plays and the likelihood exists you have never seen it or know much about it.

Miller’s first Main Stem effort was the 1944 flop, “The Man Who Had All the Luck”; his sophomore outing, “All My Sons,” was his big break.

The 1947 post-World War II drama was a critical and popular success and the recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and first Tony award for Best Author.

Time (72 years to be precise) has transformed the play into an American classic. 

There is no better proof than Roundabout Theatre Company’s shattering production, impeccably directed by Jack O’Brien, at the American Airlines Theatre.

Miller, as we all know, was an uncompromising moralist. He detested the hollow promises of the American Dream, especially when making money and achieving success comes at the expense of others.  Harboring a fierce belief in man's responsibility to his fellow man, he never doubted that self-destruction follows on the heels of the betrayal of that responsibility.

His unshakable convictions permeate a play that deals with the wrenching consequences of a fateful and morally irresponsible decision that shatters the fragile façade of the Midwestern Keller family, patriarch Joe Keller (Tony-winner Tracey Letts); wife Katie (screen legend Annette Bening); and son Chris (Benjamin Walker).

Bening, it is a delight to report, returns to Broadway 32 years after making her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in 1987’s “Coastal Disturbances.”

Over a remarkable three-decade screen career, the actress has delivered penetrating and truthful performances in 30 movies, including four films for which she was nominated for an Academy Award: “The Grifters,” “American Beauty,” “Being Julia” and “The Kids Are All Right.”

Jeff Sugg’s compelling black and white video of a torrential rainstorm intercut with images of planes falling out of the sky launches the impassioned family drama.

Despite the unsettling nature of the images, the curtain rises on an incredibly cheering sight. It’s late summer in 1947, we’re in a Middle American town within driving distance of Columbus, Ohio, and designer Douglas W. Schmidt’s visualization of the Keller family’s lusher-than-lush back yard in late summer of 1947 is ravishing.  

Paying tribute to Aristotle’s “Poetics” (a play must present a single action occurring in a single place within the course of a day), Miller sets “All My Sons” in one location on a single day.

This particular day turns out to be a long day’s journey into night, starting early on a sunny Sunday morning and stretching long into the darkness of the next day.

Patriarch Joe Keller is a self-made man who worked his way up from worker to boss/owner of a factory that made airplane parts for the military during World War II. He is a decent guy, family man, hard worker. All told, he is the perfect example of the average American.

But Joe refuses to deal with certain aspects of his life in a head-on manner.  His ability to “ignore what I gotta ignore” enables him, almost but not entirely, to exist in an alternate reality in which nothing is of any interest or consequence unless it affects his ability to prosper and provide for his family.

Joe’s dutiful son Chris, who is in his early thirties, occupies a medium-level executive position at the family business and will likely soon take on a top-level position.

Both Chris and his younger brother Larry served in the war.

Chris was wounded in action and witnessed the deaths of more than 100 troops under his command (leaving him with an aching dose of survivor’s guilt).

Larry, an Air Force pilot, never returned from a mission in the Pacific, and is technically listed as missing in action.

Joe and Chris have long come to terms with the inevitable, but Kate Keller desperately clings to the belief that her son still alive and will simply walk through the door one day. During three-and-a-half years of compulsive waiting, she has experienced two nervous breakdowns.

And that’s not all. The Kellers are awash in hidden currents of anguish and misgiving.

Once upon a time not that long ago, Joe and his former next-door neighbor, Steve Deever, were business partners; Steve’s daughter Ann (Francesca Carpanini) and Larry were engaged to be married; and Chris and Ann’s brother George (Hampton Fluker) were great pals.

The company made airplane parts, some of which were found to be defective. Yet Joe, for whom survival is a primary necessity, made the appalling decision to authorize the shipment of the cracked cylinder heads to the U.S. Army. Subsequently, 21 pilots died tragically when their fighter jets crashed due to the flawed components.

The partners were arrested, tried and were serving time when Joe claimed he was sick on the day of the deliveries, and, therefore, could not authorize the shipment. He was exonerated on appeal – Joe’s genial nature probably had a lot to do with his convincing the appeals court of his innocence – while Steve remained in prison where he still is.

Understandably, a dismayed Ann and George turned against their war-criminal father and wrote him out of their lives.

The great horror that hangs over the Keller family is the suspicion that the truth of Joe’s heinous behavior is going to surface.

And it seems almost predestined that Keller’s culpability is going to catch up with him.

Chris has cultivated a romance with Ann, who has been living in New York, and has extended an invitation to her to visit, and she is on her way. When she arrives, Chris plans to propose.

Kate makes sure to let Chris know she opposes his relationship with “Larry’s girl.”

Ann senses that the entire Keller family is trapped in a state of denial. But she has come to terms with Larry’s death, allowing her to move on, and she is determined to encourage Chris to do the same.

It is 1947 so it should come as no surprise that Ann is told by three different people—Kate, George, and Chris—how and what she should feel.

Carpanini captures the role of the determined neighbor's daughter with candor, youthfulness and passion.

Later, Ann’s brother George turns up after visiting their father in jail for the first time.  He has also been injured in the war, a wound that earned him a medal. He carries another wound, however, that is deeper and more painful: a fractured family, and the guilt of turning away from his father when he should have done the opposite.

The hurt is made all the more poignant when he comes to suspect that those he thought of as friends and family have betrayed them. He wants to amend his faults, and save Ann from the clutches of the Keller legacy.

Hampton Fluker, Benjamin Walker, Francesca Carpanini

Utilizing his training as a lawyer, he presses Joe until the atmosphere reaches a boiling point. Joe appears to listen, but he’s too self-involved really to really care what anyone else is up to. He doesn’t mean to be selfish, but his guilt and cover ups leave him entirely preoccupied.

Fluker delivers an enormously compelling performance as he oscillates between rage and residual affection for the Keller family.

After he departs, the heat really turns up and Letts, Bening and Walker ratchet up the play to its heart wrenching conclusion.

“Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him,” Kate tells Chris. “Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father.  Now you see don’t you? Now you see.”

In that moment, it becomes clear she has always intuitively known about Joe’s guilt and used her obsession with Larry’s death as a way of protecting her guilty husband.

Convinced of the truth, Chris engages in a brutal showdown with his father, forcing him to see the error of his refusal to think only of himself and his family and accept responsibility for anyone else.

Thinking of the lost flyers, Joe wails, "They were all my sons."

Sadly, as is often the case, it is too little, too late.

Chris next tells Ann and Kate that he is going away because he can no longer bear to look at his father, but can also not take on the responsibility of sending him to prison as he deserves.

Ann produces a letter that Larry wrote her the day he died. Chris reads the letter aloud: it describes how, upon learning about what his father did, Larry could not bear to live anymore. He told Ann that he knew he would be reported missing and that she should not wait for him.

Joe’s suicide brings to a tragic conclusion this story of complicity and misguided family values.

At a time of unrestrained corruption and fakery when lies masquerade as truth, Miller’s moral rigor is sublimely reassuring.

 

Benjamin Walker and Tracey Letts

 All My Sons has been extended through June 23.  For TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Roundabout Theatre Company

 

 

 


Tuesday
Apr162019

'THE LEHMAN TRILOGY' - THE 167-YEAR RISE AND FALL OF THE FINANCIAL GIANTS

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles
HENRY EDWARDS - NEW YORK - April 16, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a critically-acclaimed stint in London’s National Theater, “The Lehman Trilogy” has arrived at the Park Avenue Armory for 33 performances and the brief engagement has turned into the must-see event of the theatre season.

The show – it runs a supersized three hours 30 minutes (three acts and two intermissions) - has been virtually sold out long before opening night. Tickets to the best locations in the vast 1,500-seat Wade Thompson Drill Hall run $450 apiece; StubHub is charging $1,200 to $2,000 for the final performances.

What are audiences paying so much to see?

A program note in the giant-sized program characterizes the play as “the story of Western Capitalism told through a single family.”

How’s that for a grandiose concept?

Three 19th-century Jewish-German immigrant brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman, and their descendants, comprise the “single family.”

I didn’t know a thing about the brothers. (Did you?)

What I am sure we all knew was that Lehman Brothers went bust on September 15, 2008 after being operational for 158 years, and it was the largest bankruptcy in history.

The public credited the failure as the seminal event that literally pushed capitalism to the brink.

In reality, even though the downfall greatly intensified the 2008 financial crisis and Americans lost an estimated average of more than a quarter of their collective net worth, the disaster was primarily caused by deregulation in the financial industry.

Nevertheless, the name “Lehman” became –and remains - synonymous with Wall Street hubris at its very worst.

“The Lehman Trilogy” begins and ends with the debacle, yet devotes little stage time to it.

The “story of Western Capitalism” turns out to be a history play that outlines the story of the original three Lehman brothers; their sons Philip and Herbert,  inheritors of  the firm; and finally, grandson Bobbie who ran the global giant into the ground.

Twenty-three--year-old Hayum Lehmann’s arrival in New York from Bavaria in 1844 (immigration changes his name to Henry Lehman) launches the play; younger starting brothers, Emanuel (ne Mendel) and Mayer, follow over the next six years.

Over the course of 164 years, three generations of Lehmans navigate their way from humble beginnings to the creation and operation of a major financial institution positioned at the heart of the world economy.

Upon arriving in America, Henry, the son of a Bavarian cattle merchant, brims with astonishment, trepidation and a sense of infinite possibilities.

He says of himself: “He took a deep breath and walking quickly, despite not knowing where to go, like so many others he stepped into the magical music box called America.”

The brothers start out as storekeepers in Montgomery, Alabama, where they sell cloth by the inch and basic home goods to poor Southerners.

Blessed with tenacity and good luck, successively – and successfully – they keep reinventing themselves, creating a primitive credit system, inventing the concept of “middleman,” and evolving into a lending bank, then an investment bank and finally a trading house.

Their core commodity slowly becomes money and their firm Lehman Brothers makes a specialty of monetizing catastrophes, including burned-down plantations, world wars, the Wall Street crash, nuclear tensions.

Within the magical music box of America, Lehman Brothers fulfills the potential of the American Dream by financing the railroads; the Panama Canal; Ford cars; oil wells; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; cigarettes; Pan American Airways; movies that include blockbusters “King Kong” and “Gone with the Wind”;  the rise of television; computing; and weaponry.

“The Lehman Trilogy” is a vastly entertaining (and superficial) look at the initiative, ambition and insatiable hunger for money that built modern capitalism. At the same time, the multigenerational story of expansion, acquisition and loss skirts the corruption, hubris and rapacious greed that destroys its own creation and almost takes the world with it in 2008.

It’s up to the audience to decide whether what they have witnessed is business as usual or the unacceptable face of capitalism.

“The Lehman Trilogy” started life in 2013 as a radio play by Italian dramatist and essayist Stefano Massini who later adapted his script into a five-hour stage version.

In 2015, British Olivier-and Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes discovered the play at The Piccolo in Milan. Subsequently, he took a strong hand in the creation of an English language version that he planned to direct for the National Theatre.

National Theatre associate director Ben Power is responsible for the creation of the current three-hour English language version.

Power wisely chooses to treat the real-life chronicle as if a novel. The characters describe their characters, their settings and their histories in the third person with only occasional dialogue, and somehow the writing is so fluid and vibrant, the approach works.

And that is not the first surprise.

Sam Mendes may be the first in memory to rely on ceaselessly inventive and surprising minimalist elements in order to create an epic theatrical experience.

Talk about outrageous decisions. Mendes cast a mere three actors to portray everybody who puts in an appearance during the 156-year saga, including the brothers, their descendants, spouses, colleagues, rivals and employees..

Two-time Olivier award-winner Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles (Captain Peter Townsend in “The Crown”) and three-time Olivier nominee Adam Godley take up the challenge. 

Carrying forth in the tradition of Britain’s most notable story-theater production, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s fabled “Nicholas Nickleby,” the trio delivers a stunning display of skill, dexterity, imagination and endurance.

Just to give you a notion of what they are up to, Adam Godley portrays 42 characters, counting one character at various ages.

Russell Beale is first seen as Henry Lehman, Miles as Emanuel, and Godley as Mayer.

They wear black mid-19th-century frock coats (Katrina Lindsay of “Harry Potter (and the Cursed Child” is the costume designer) and never change out of them as they tell the story and deliver brief, sharp impersonations as they metamorphose from one character to another.

Though the original siblings are long dead before the play ends, they remain on stage, functioning as guides and observers.

Simon Russell Beale and Miss Liberty

Russell Beale is a touching Henry Lehman, who sadly succumbs to yellow fever at the age of 33; Emanuel’s son, ruthless capitalist sharp shooter Philip Lehman; a demure 19th-century Southern miss; a libidinous 20th-century divorcée who marries into the clan, only to regret it; a two-year-old child; a centenarian rabbi, and (believe this) a slave, slave-owner and the governor of Alabama.

Miles is an imposing Emanuel Lehman; Mayer’s son Herbert, who "wanted things to be fair” and ended up a liberal politician with a second career as governor of New York; and Lewis Glucksman, the tough-guy trader whose fierce battle for control of Lehman Brothers in 1983 was a curtain-raiser for the titanic struggles of ego and that swept Wall Street over the next decade. 

Godley creates an earnest Mayer Lehman, the youngest of the three brothers, the last member of the family to helm the firm, Philip’s elderly son Bobbie, whose creepy dance that he performs to mark the company’s precipitous expansion causes his death; and eight women who are rival potential wives for Russell Beale’s Philip Lehman.

There’s no denying it’s a stunt, and it’s such a dazzling and dexterous stunt you feel ashamed to wonder what it would have been like had there been more drama and conflict for the actors to chew over.

Es Devlin’s set provides another dose of astonishment.

Her superlative eye candy is made up of a huge, gleaming 800-square-foot transparent glass cube (nine panes weighing between 750 and 1,000 pounds were used in its construction) mounted on a turntable, and surrounded by a black background and an enormous curved cyclorama on which are projected splendid, often startling, mostly black-and-white video images designed by Luke Halls.

Devlin’s cube is divided into quadrants with three small interconnecting spaces and a much larger antiseptic twenty-first-century board room.

The effect is that of a single floor of a corporate skyscraper floating in space.

The cube revolves almost continuously as unobtrusive pianist Candida Caldicot accompanies the action playing mood-setting music by Nick Powell.

Huge gasp inducing images surround the cube.  We see waves, flames, cotton fields, clouds, the Statue of Liberty stranded in the middle of the ocean; stock market boards that move, faster and faster, until they are nothing but a blur; a cotton field that suddenly sprouts a nightmarish Industrial Revolution factory.

The New York skyline morphs, bit by bit, over a century-and-a-half from a small collection of pre-Civil War warehouses to a stunning view of contemporary Manhattan at night.

Every generation of the family is plagued by prophetic nightmares (of stacks of coins wobbling as they get higher, roofs of houses caving in) and color is utilized strictly in these unnerving videos.

When Bobbie Lehman dies in 1969, he leaves no heirs. For the first time, the firm is not led by a Lehman.

In the third act, which is the weakest, risk-taking traders operate in a deregulated market – with disastrous consequences.  As the end approaches the visuals blur and the office spins at a dizzying pace. Fifteen of the firm’s employees gather and wait hear of the company’s closing. The telephone rings and the play is over.

“The Lehman Trilogy” is mammoth, dazzling, and filled with flair and energy. The actors, design team and director are brilliant. But entertaining us doesn’t seem to me to be enough.

Shouldn’t we at least the very least be unsettled by the Lehmans and their legacy and the brand of capitalism they practiced and inspired? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles

 

More information: Park Avenue Armory