All My Sons

“All My Sons.” (1947) Arthur Miller, playwright; Simon McBurney, director. Schoenfeld Theater, Broadway, limited run. Starring John Lithgow, Patrick Wilson, Dianne Wiest, Katie Holmes.

“All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s powerful play about family ties, corruption, and lies set just after World War II, opens with a massive wind storm that knocks over a large tree while a woman stands watching, transfixed. She makes her way through a screen door that marks the house, and the storm dies down. But the real storm is just beginning.

The rest of the barnlike stage is nearly bare—just a patio table, a chair, a screen door, another large tree, and the entire back wall painted with bricks to indicate a gigantic gray house looming over the scene. The wings of the stage are uncurtained, revealing the offstage cast sitting formally in the dark, hands in their laps, as they wait their turns to enter the scene.  Their silent presence suggests a jury of our peers, witnessing the action and casting judgment not only upon the characters onstage but also, perhaps, upon the audience as well. This is, after all, Arthur Miller. No man stands alone.

We quickly learn that the tree was a memorial, planted when son Larry was reported missing and presumed shot down in the South Pacific more than three years earlier. Brother Chris (Patrick Wilson) and father Joe (John Lithgow) have accepted Larry’s death, and Chris has invited Larry’s former girlfriend Ann (Katie Holmes) to their house for the weekend with the intent of asking her to marry him. But mother Kate (Dianne Wiest) has refused to accept Larry’s death and still expects him to return from the war, even though it has ended long ago. Her fragile mental state makes it difficult for the family to move forward.

In addition to this conflict is the slowly unfolding who-done-it regarding Ann’s father, who had been in business with Joe Keller until he was convicted of selling faulty parts to the Air Force. Ann and her brother have not been back to town since their father’s conviction, and they have refused to speak to him because of the shame he brought to their family.

These two themes–the relationship between fathers and sons and the corrupting nature of capitalism—are recurrent in Miller’s plays and a reason they don’t generally appeal to libertarians. His plays are traditionally directed with a heavy dose of cynicism and bitterness, and business bashing is de rigueur . But recent directors have infused Miller’s characters with a greater complexity, allowing the fathers to reveal an inner struggle and softer emotion that humanizes them, even if it doesn’t quite acquit them.

Lithgow’s Joe Keller is a charming “good old Joe” as he chats with quirky friends from next door, banters with a little neighborhood boy, and warmly welcomes Ann. The neighbors who live on either side of their house are funny and disarming, infusing the first act with an unexpected lightheartedness. Birds chirp in the air and a radio plays happy dance tunes. Ann flits around the stage like a bird herself, first alighting in front of one character and then behind another’s chair, swirling and twittering about the stage. This is a friendly, happy neighborhood, willing and ready to let bygones be bygones. It seems.

But Kate’s neurotic refusal to accept Larry’s death (and thus Chris’s engagement to Ann) casts a deepening pall on the happy scene. Chris is just a little too perfect, Ann just a little too cheerful, Joe just a little too forgiving, Kate just a little too sure that her dead son will return to them alive.  I think it’s significant that the father is named Joe and his son is named Chris, providing a post-modernist, irreverent twist on the iconic Christ figure that subtly adds gravity to a story.

What carries this play (and will carry it all the way to the Tonys in June, despite its limited fall run) is the powerful performance of the actors. Every one of them is spot on, from the bubbly goofiness of the next door neighbors to the powerful intensity of the parents’ pain. Wiest’s unvoiced howl of despair as she curls into herself in the final scene is bloodcurdling in its silence. Wilson brings a natural movement and inflection to his performance, and Lithgow is—well, he’s just magnificent. At times feeble with age, at times powerfully physical, he simply fills the massive stage.

Katie Holmes is good in her Broadway debut. She is lovely, charming, and sprightly in Act I as she flits from character to character, smiling brightly at everyone. I also found McBurney’s frequent staging with Ann’s back to the audience disarming as well—rather like the depth Giotto created in his paintings by having some characters face into the painting rather than out. But Holmes has not yet learned how to reach the rafters without shouting, and it is especially apparent when she is onstage with these veteran actors. Emotions that should be raw and hesitant in the second act become angry and harsh instead. She seems more suited for screen than for stage at this point, but hopefully she will learn to use her diaphragm before she loses her voice.

As for the business bashing–well, it’s Arthur Miller. Of course it’s there. But it seems less universal in this production, which focuses more on the flaw in an individual than on corruption in the system of business itself. Joe blames the system, but he has become an unreliable voice, so we don’t have to take his word for it.

The true evil in this production stems from self-deception, trying to cover up a mistake instead of accepting responsibility and correcting it—a tragic weakness that many of us have experienced from time to time.  It happens to a businessman in this play, but it doesn’t have to happen to every businessman. As a member of my party said while we were leaving the theater, “There are corrupt people in every walk of life—doctors, plumbers, politicians, bankers. But the free market provides the surest way for identifying and eliminating them.”

Don’t let Miller’s left wing reputation keep you from attending this production of “All My Sons.” This is theater at its best, with a thought-provoking script and a top-notch cast.  If you are in New York this fall, it should be at the top of your list.

The Women–Why Remake a Classic?

“The Women” 1939. George Cukor, director. MGM, 133 minutes.

Written by Clare Booth Luce and directed by George Cukor, the original production of “The Women” is a nearly perfect film, one of those masterpieces of 1939, the Golden Year of movie making. Populated entirely by women (reportedly even the dogs and horses in the film were female), it presents a witty, sophisticated, and stylish view of the catty and competitive world of Manhattan’s high society matrons.

The story centers on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), seemingly the most grounded of a large group of diverse friends whose most common denominator is that they have time to shop and do lunch. She is happy, intelligent, kind and dignified, enjoying a successful partnership in which her husband manages the business while she manages the home. But they spend little time together, as the film’s all-woman cast and all-female settings subtly point out.

When two of her friends discover that Mary’s husband is having an affair with a perfume-counter girl (Joan Crawford) they contrive a way for Mary to find out and then sit back to watch what she will do about it. They don’t care about her; they just want to watch the cat fight and have a great story to share at the next dinner party.

Mary’s instinct is to look the other way. If she doesn’t know about his infidelity, he just might over it, and it won’t have to affect their marriage. Othello reacts the same way when Iago convinces him that his wife, Desdemona has been unfaithful:

I swear ‘tis better to be much abused

Than but to know’t a little….

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?

I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me;

I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry…

He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol’n,

Let him not know’t, and he’s not robbed at all…

I had been happy if the general camp,

Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known.

This “ignorance is bliss” approach is, in fact, the advice Mary receives from her mother, who confesses that she has been there and done that, and kept her own marriage intact. “Go away for a few days,” she recommends. “There’s nothing like a good dose of being left alone to make a man appreciate his wife.” Indeed, the tactic seems to be working; in a one-sided phone conversation at the perfume counter, Crystal has to wheedle and connive to convince the cooling Stephen Haines to see her.

But Mary’s catty, gossipy friends can’t let it drop. Led by her best friend, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), they manipulate a humiliating confrontation between Mary and Crystal (one of the most delicious scenes ever filmed) while both are trying on negligees at a fashionable boutique. Publicly devastated, Mary now has to act. Like Othello, she is pushed into a decision she does not want. Urged by her friends to place her reputation above her own happiness, she travels to Reno and obtains a divorce.

Meanwhile, her husband now has no excuse but to marry the other woman, who begins looking for greener pastures even while she is the new Mrs. Stephen Haines. He, too, is miserable, or so says Little Mary, their daughter to a sad but stoic Mary. Most divorced women would delight in this outcome as the ultimate revenge. But not our Mary. She misses her husband. Armed with the knowledge that he misses her too, she confidently manipulates a confrontation of her own in an even more delicious scene that takes place in one of the sumptuous ladies lounges of the 1930s night clubs.

As Mary heads out of the lounge to rekindle her marriage, Sylvia demands, “Have you no pride?” With the joyous glow of love shining from her eyes, Mary responds, “No pride at all. That’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford!”

The film’s ending has been debated in recent years: doesn’t she sell out to conventional mores? Shouldn’t she assert herself? Establish a career? Is she just too weak to imagine a life by herself? The answer is more in Norma Shearer’s face than in the words or action of the script. That glow is unmistakable—she is not selling out. She is indeed asserting herself by going after the one thing she wants: her marriage. It’s one of my all-time favorite scenes.

“The Women” 2008. Diane English, director. Picturehouse Entertainment, 114 minutes.

Deciding to remake such a time-honored classic as “The Women” would be risky even in the hands of a talented and seasoned director. Why would a first-time director even bother? Perhaps Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Candice Bergen, and Cloris Leachman consider themselves on a par with Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Godard, Joan Fontaine, and Marjorie Main. But they are sadly mistaken—and now thye have made it abundantly clear. The only cast member who could possibly qualify is Bette Midler, and she is woefully underused.

As expected, the recent remake of “The Women” is a mere caricature of the original, more sitcom than film presence. And no wonder—director Diane English’s career has been in television, mostly writing episodes of “Murphy Brown” and “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.”  She doesn’t seem capable of eliciting nuanced performances or complex emotion. Every character is a stereotype, and every movement and expression an overaction.

Moreover, the film doesn’t transfer well to the 21st century. Developing a stage play and then a film with an all-woman cast was far from gimmicky in the 1930s, when husbands and wives often lived parallel lives in separate universes. The all-woman scenes take place naturally in the beauty salon, health spa, kitchen, fitting rooms, and perfume counters—all strictly off limits to the 1930s male. Not seen but implied is a similarly one-sided environment in which men spent time only with other men. These two mutually exclusive environments, Booth Luce implies, were damaging to marriage.

While Booth Luce makes an excellent point about the power of peer pressure, even among adults, this all-woman strategy feels utterly contrived and unnatural today.  Men and women interact side by side getting hair cuts, running the tread mill, shopping for groceries, sharing parenting duties, and running the board room. Consequently, in the 2008 version, having an all-woman cast makes no particular point; it just seems jarring and odd. Even the one woman who seems to be happily married (Debra Messing), (judging by the fact that she has four young children and another on the way), announces that her husband is living in an apartment downstairs. Say what?

The most ridiculous scene of all takes place as the nanny reports the blow-by-blow to the housekeepe as Mary and Stephen fight about Crystal—why don’t we just go into the bedroom and see it for ourselves? The implication in the original is that Mary and Stephen probably didn’t have a confrontation at all. She was more likely to have quietly packed her bags and left him a dignified note, because that’s what convention and her wounded pride would have dictated. In a modern film not letting us see the husband makes no point whatsoever.

English seems to recognize this flaw, so while she goes ahead with the all-woman cast, she resorts to bodily fluids to make her point about the difference between men and. Her characters continually refer to peeing, sex, breast milk, menstruation, collagen injections, amniotic fluid, and a raunchy reference to saliva, a nail and a board that I’d rather not repeat. If bodily fluids are indeed the only remaining distinctions between women and men, then maybe there was no need for this remake.

What’s really missing from this new film is class. I miss the cool, subtle, imperious delivery of Booth Luce’s catty zingers, the kind that, when followed by a sweet smile, can make the recipient almost feel guilty for taking offense, while causing the audience to gasp with shocked delight. I miss Joan Crawford’s natural sexiness as she admires herself in the mirror–her Crystal did not see herself as a slut, nor did she play it that way. By contrast, all Eva Mendes needs is a pole–she has the chair and the garter belt.

Moreover, I miss the acknowledgement that a woman can find joy and satisfaction in being married to a man—or even having a conversation with one. Clare Booth Luce takes some well-deserved punches at the dangerous peer pressure of the women’s club, landing a few knock-outs in the process. But English seems honor bound to celebrate 70s style sisterhood throughout her film. At one point Sylvia says to Mary, “We’ll be each other’s wives.” Fine, if that’s what you both want, but Mary wants to be Stephen’s wife! Why can’t that be acceptable?

The joyfully anticipated reunion at the end of the original is lost as Mary must first establish a career as a fashion designer before her friends will allow her to consider reconciling with her husband. She must be “true to herself” before she can be true to him, they explain. Yet early in the film she is seen happily gardening, cooking, parenting. Why can’t a woman be “true to herself” in the kitchen? Is a paycheck the only measure of value today?  This is peer pressure in the extreme, and it goes unnoticed and unresolved in this unnecessary film.

Frozen River

“Frozen River.” Courtney Hunt, writer/director. Cohen Media Group, 97 minutes.

“Frozen River” is about an unlikely pair of women smuggling immigrants from Canada to the US, but I promise you it is not a message film and it has no political agenda. It doesn’t make a case for or agains immigration; it doesn’t even make a case for better welfare benefits for poor families. In fact, the final scene seems to argue that the government ought to butt out and let every community govern itself. It’s a film about families, and what some people will do to provide for them.

As the film opens, a broken-hearted Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) realizes that her husband has run off with their savings. Nothing much is said about the missing husband, but an “Easy Does It” sticker pasted on the bumper of his car gives us a clue. All Ray wants is a double-wide trailer with good insulation for the winter. It’s almost Christmas, and she finally had the money to have it delivered. Now she’s going to lose her deposit if she can’t come up with the balance within a week.

While trying to track down her husband at the local Bingo parlor, Ray catches Lila (Misty Upham), stealing Ray’s husband’s car, which he left at the Bingo parlor when he hopped on the bus to Atlantic City. A tough single mother who lives on the Mohawk reservation, Lila needs a car with a button operated trunk to make extra money smuggling immigrants across a frozen expanse of river that marks the border between Canada and the US.

Promising to take her to a man who will buy the car, Lila tricks Ray into making a smuggling run with her. At first Ray is aghast, but after her initial fears calm down, she decides in desperation to continue smuggling until she has enough money to pay for the trailer. The two women experience several harrowing moments during their drops, leading up to their ominous and  inevitable One Last Run.

What makes this film remarkable is how well it takes the viewer into a world we often see but don’t acknowledge. Everything about it is naturalistic, from the mismatched wardrobe to the unadorned sets to the unself-conscious acting. We are drawn in by the strength and determination of these women whom we might describe as weak and inconsequential if we met them on the street.

Melissa Leo’s Ray is worn out but determined. Her wiry figure and weathered face, now etched with worry and weariness, belie a long-ago beauty. She has a part-time job at the Dollar Store, but the full time position she was promised has been given to a younger and cuter sales clerk. She’s a conscientious mother, determined to keep her boys in school and out of trouble. She doesn’t want much—just a trailer with insulation—and she doesn’t ask for handouts—her kids don’t even seem to take advantage of the free lunch program at school. (Ray searches the couch cushions for lunch money every morning.) We see people like Ray every day, but do we bother to know them?

Meanwhile, Ray’s teenage son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) is experiencing desperation of his own. With his father gone on a gambling junket, he has to step up and be the man of the house. He wants enough money to stop eating popcorn and Tang for dinner, and he wants to buy his little brother a Hot Wheels set for Christmas. Is that so much to ask? His mother won’t let him get a job to supplement the family income, so he turns to a job outside the legal sector—stealing a credit card number and selling it to a classmate. The juxtaposition of mother and son as they reluctantly enter a life of crime is touching and heartbreaking.

Lila, too, is motivated by good intentions. Her young son has been taken away from her by his paternal grandmother, and she needs to earn enough money to provide a decent home for him in order to get him back. Lila is caught between these two generations, an adult because she is a mother, but still a kid like T.J. by age, with a tribal community trying to keep her out of trouble. Upham plays her perfectly, capturing the bravado of youth and the despair of lost opportunity, a girl forced by circumstances to act like a grown up. She pretends she doesn’t care and isn’t afraid, but we can see past the facade.

None of these characters wants to take advantage of others or break the law. Each is willing to work, and work hard. But there isn’t enough money at the Dollar Store, or the Bingo parlor, or after school shoveling snow, to provide even the basic standard of living that you and I take for granted. “Frozen River” captures the bleakness of a landscape in which no matter how hard you try, you can’t get ahead. Still, you can’t stop trying, and it’s the indefatigable spirit of these three main characters that makes this such a powerful film.