REVIEWS: “All My Sons” and “Burn This”
The last two play revivals of the 2018-2019 Broadway season could not be more different in the success of their execution. Below I take a look at Roundabout Theatre Company’s sterling production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”, and the abysmal revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This”.
“All My Sons” (Play Revival, Roundabout Theatre Company): though not his first play, “All My Sons” (1947) was the play that put Arthur Miller on the map. A top shelf tragedy in the tradition of Greek drama and lifted from a contemporaneous headline, “All My Sons” tells the story of the Keller Family of Ohio as it grapples with unaddressed personal and societal moral quandaries in the aftermath of World War II. A searing meditation on war, morality, capitalism, and the clash of generations, this popular play is now in its third Broadway revival. Under the brilliant hand of director Jack O’Brien, the gripping and pitch-perfect production at the Roundabout Theatre Company is a highlight of the spring season.
Proud patriarch Joe Keller (Tracy Letts) avoids criminal culpability for his company’s sale of faulty materiel to the U.S. Army during the war in which his older son Larry goes missing, and from which his younger son, Chris (Benjamin Walker) returns home plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. Matriarch Kate (Annette Bening) refuses to abandon hope that Larry is alive and will be found, while new revelations from Joe’s imprisoned former-partner unearth the truth behind his actions, which led to the deaths of 21 U.S. servicemen. Set in the idyllic backyard of the Keller home on a warm day in late-August 1947—handsomely realized by Douglas W. Schmidt’s hyper-realistic set design and John Gromada’s evocative, atmospheric sound design—this well-constructed drama builds toward its tragic climax with a titular line that hits you like a freight train.
While the assembled ensemble is excellent all-around, the trio of Ms. Bening, Mr. Letts, and Mr. Walker combine to give the superior level of performance that theatregoers ache for, both riveting and raw. It is a treat to see Mr. Letts, an accomplished playwright, return to the stage after several years of absence, and Mr. Walker is among the most dynamic and captivating actors of his generation, but the greatest coup here is the presence of Ms. Bening, who last graced a Broadway stage in 1988, and is near-peerless in the execution of her craft. Indeed, emerging from the theatre, shook by the mastery at hand, it is hard to imagine a better production of a better play. Do not miss this revival—an essential entry in the Broadway season. Opened April 22nd; runs through June 30th at the American Airlines Theatre. Discount Tickets.
“Burn This” (Play Revival): the first, and hopefully last, revival of “Burn This”, Lanford Wilson’s 1988 headscratcher of a play, has seemingly no reason to exist other than to give Adam Driver, its marquee star, an opportunity to flash his considerable talent on a Broadway stage. Unfortunately, nearly every note of this dated, slow burn rings false, from the antiseptic but attractive loft apartment set design by Derek McLane, to the obviously fake snow falling outside the windows, whatever it is that Keri Russell is doing, and the supposed passion that we are meant to believe is sparking and exploding between our two leads (spoiler alert: there is absolutely none).
Set in an anachronistically grit-less late-1980s New York, the sudden death of choreographer Anna (Ms. Russell) and adman Larry’s (Brandon Uranowitz) roommate Robbie, a dancer, in a boating accident with his partner causes Robbie’s estranged brother, the coke-addled and combustible restaurant manager Pale (Mr. Driver), to show up at their downtown loft. Wouldn’t you know it, opposites attract and Anna soon dumps her well-off screenwriter boyfriend, Burton (David Furr), to shack up with Pale. None of this is believable or even mildly interesting, especially as rendered in Ms. Russell’s emotionally inert performance that sounds more like a blind table read of the script, and with Mr. Driver’s overwrought, larger than life presence that borders on caricature. The two might regularly light up the big and small screen, but on stage, neither catches aflame.
In Ms. Russell’s defense, the character of Anna, seemingly devoid of agency or personality, is so poorly sketched and artificially written, one could be forgiven for believing that Wilson, who died in 2011, had never met a woman. In Mr. Driver’s defense, I guess he really just wanted to stomp around a stage and pick up some award nominations; and that he does and has. For his part, Mr. Uranowitz gives a fine (Tony-nominated) performance with the often-cringeworthy lines he has to say as the sardonically humorous gay character, providing the few believable moments of this otherwise misguided affair led by director Michael Mayer.
Whatever appeal this play must have once had—Joan Allen and John Malkovich starred in the hit 1987 Broadway premiere—has long since extinguished, no doubt existing only in flickers of nostalgia. Skip this one, and catch the next production of the far superior “A Streetcar Named Desire” instead, for here’s a burn: Wilson was no Williams. Opened April 16th; runs through July 14th at the Hudson Theatre. Discount Tickets.