Well, Playbill.com's intrepid opening night reporter had uncharacteristically strayed out of the 10036 ZIP code during the unveiling of director Simon McBurney's revival of Arthur Miller's 1947 classic All My Sons. And so yours truly stepped in, resembling the master interviewer in no way except that I had a tape recorder in my hand and thrust it in the direction of a lot of famous faces.
Though I am relatively unused to opening nights (critics and reporters typically attend late previews), I knew enough to guess that the size of the crowd and the number of photographers outside the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre were unusually large. As popular and talented as John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson — three of the production's headliners — are, the throng was not for them, but for their co-star, the film and television actress, and tabloid regular, Katie Holmes, whose Broadway debut this is. Oh, and they also might have been a little interested in her husband, a Hollywood actor of some repute. If the late Miller had been there, he might have recognized it as something like the circus that followed him during his years as Marilyn Monroe's spouse.
Interviews at the after-party — held in Espace, a cavernous hall with flowing walls on 42nd Street between 11th and 12th Avenues — were confined to a tent outside the building. There was to be no luck with two of the evening's leading players. Wiest, famous for her disinclination to engage with members of the Fourth Estate, whisked herself inside before a single camera could go "click." (I did learn from a member of the backstage crew that Wiest is apparently an incorrigible practical joker and likes to mess about with the props.) And the always-affable, always-accessible Lithgow pointed to his throat in a pantomimed protest that any more questions might force him into "vocal rest" the next day. Sigh.
But all was not lost. Their comrades, Wilson and Holmes — in a red-carpet designer dress far too fancy for the comparatively off-the-rack world of Broadway — offered their thoughts on what everyone seemed to agree was suddenly a vividly contemporary play. "As soon as I read this, I knew," said Wilson, who plays Chris Keller, whose world and ideals come crashing down when he discovers that his industrialist dad, Joe Keller (Lithgow), knowingly sold faulty equipment to the armed services during WWII, resulting in the death of 21 pilots. "I knew it would be great, no matter how it was done. I don't know if that's where I am as a 35-year-old as opposed to a teenager looking for monologues, or where we are as a country, staring in the face of Capitalism. It hits everybody. You see it in the audience."
Those who think the naturalistic moralist playwright and the theatrically experimental director make for an odd couple should know that Miller wished for this production. "I had a meeting with Arthur Miller in 2001," said McBurney. "He came and saw one of my shows and I told him how moved I'd been by his work and that one day I'd like to do one of his shows. And he got incredibly thrilled by that. He said, 'I would love to do it, because my plays are always done so naturalistically.'"
And so, while the Presidential candidates debated the fate of Joe the Plumber and what it said about America, Simon McBurney and his cast put together Miller's (as it turns out) infinitely more topical tale of Joe the War Contractor. The process, as one might guess, was not typical.
"To audition for the role, we didn't just come in and read with Simon," said Becky Ann Baker, the New York stage regular who plays the pivotal role of a mean-spirited and self-interested neighbor who sees right through the Kellers' dishonest pose. "We met him and we were called back and worked with him in a three-to-four hour workshop. And then if we were called back from that experience, we worked with the four stars for a three-to-four hour workshop. Then I was called the next day and worked again for an entire day with the four leads. We knew we were still auditioning, but at the same time we were learning extraordinary things, doing inventive exercises, improvisations. It was one of the craziest auditions you've ever seen."
|photos by Aubrey Reuben|
One of those exercises was a little McBurney invention called Nine Square. "It's a game in which you make nine squares in which everybody learns to space themselves," the director explained. "I got them to move in the spaces and make their own decisions. I don't have to choreograph anything. I don't have to go through a long, complicated blocking process. It's more organic than that, because they learn how to react to each other in the space." It may have been a tool for McBurney, but it became a game for everyone else — one so alluring that Tom Cruise himself (that famous husband mentioned earlier) took part. Apparently, but somehow unsurprisingly, he was quite good at it. (Not only Holmes' husband, but little Suri Cruise has her place in this company. "It's a great schedule because we get to spend the whole day together and then I go and do the play and then go home and play some more," said Holmes. "We have a dressing room that's transformed into a play room. It has a little piano.")
When every rehearsal and exercise was done, the cast and director ended up with a vision of Miller quite unlike those Broadway is used to — one with large film projections, and enveloping soundscape; rows of chairs on either side of the spare backyard set in which actors sat and watched the action when not on stage; and a single screen door upstage which led each actor to face the same climbing wall, as if to remind them of the inescapable crime that rules all their lives. The show begins with the cast congregating on the grass and smilingly regarding the audience, while Lithgow, a la the Stage Manager in Our Town, asks that all cell phones to be turned off and announces that the cast will be performing something called All My Sons that evening.
That the production and drama proposes that war profiteering, ruthless business procedures and getting away with murder are traditions as All-American as patriotism, hard work and apple pie was lost on no one in the audience — which included Denis O'Hare, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Graham, MaryLouise Burke, Douglas Sills, Dennis Farina and, very very briefly, editor Tina Brown and husband Harold Evans. "I adore this play," said actor Richard Kind. "I adore the fact that it was written when it was written, and that John Lithgow has Dick Cheney's haircut. I think any American with a conscience must see this show. It really does speak to our time." Cheney, of course, is the sitting Vice-President who was once CEO of ethics-challenged, multi-national, oil and energy corporation Halliburton. Critics charge that he remains uncomfortably cozy with the company, leading to Halliburton having received several lucrative contracts in connection to the Iraq war. When told that the new staging of Miller's 60-year-old work felt like a play about Halliburton, director McBurney lighted up, visibly pleased. "Thank you," he said. "It is."
Of course, not everyone at Espace was pondering weighty world affairs. Some were thinking about how to penetrate the thick rings of people that radiated out in concentric circles from Tom Cruise, who, somewhat involuntarily, held court in the far corner of the room. Trapped between the Dianne Wiest table, the Katie Holmes table and the John Lithgow table, he was sometimes hard to spot, as he was frequently swallowed up by the civilized, insistent, and usually somewhat taller greeters who surrounded him. But every now and then his famous head would appear, with its unmistakable handsomeness, unmistakable nose and a familiar 100-watt smile that flickered on and off. He seemed relatively at ease. But then, this wasn't his first go-round as a Broadway Husband; he performed the same dutiful role in 1998, when his then-spouse Nicole Kidman won raves in The Blue Room. All that remains is for Cruise himself to take the stage. Hey, why not? He's already good at Nine Square!