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Miller Time in Williamstown

The work of Albee, Pinter, and others is also showcased in this year's Williamstown Theatre Fest. logo
Mason Adams and Chris O?Donnell
in The Man Who Had All the Luck
(Photo: Richard Feldman)
Arthur Miller wasn't at the opening night party for the Williamstown Theatre Fest's revival of his first produced full-length play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (subtitled A Fable). When the play closes here on July 29, it will have run four times longer than its original four-night stand in 1944.

The 85-year-old playwright--who did attend the production's first sit-down rehearsal several weeks earlier--had some good fortune of his own back in '44 when, despite the play's unanimous critical drubbing, it won the Theater Guild National Award. His story of a young Midwesterner who seems to have "all the luck" was written in 1940 and set in 1938. The play contains elements of favorite Miller themes to come (relationships between fathers, sons and brothers, American capitalism and immigrants), but all are seen through a much rosier pair of glasses than the author would later wear. New York Times critic Bruce Weber's rave review of the Williamstown production found the play to be "...swelling with ambition... [although] both flawed and question it leaves you with is how it could have been so easily dismissed 57 years ago." Weber also praised Scott Ellis' "beautifully cast production...dotted with admirable performances, particularly given the limited rehearsal time." He singled out veteran actors Mason Adams and David Wohl for their "vivid, memorably idiosyncratic variations on recognizable American types," the "marvelously warm Sam Robards," and--as the lucky hero--"film actor Chris O'Donnell, who is making a remarkable stage debut...his comfort, solidity and easy charisma on the stage will be the envy of many more experienced players."

O'Donnell may be a new stage star-in-the-making, but Adams has been plying his trade ever since he got back to New York after serving in WW II. He's also a veteran of radio and screens both big and small (he won three successive Emmy nods for TV's Lou Grant). And every American knows his voice from hundreds, if not thousands, of commercials. "Radio was my day job," says Mason, who played the lead in Pepper Young's Family for more than 29 years, "but I actually made my Broadway stage debut in 1943 in some German Expressionistic play with Alvin Epstein; I've long since forgotten the title. Some of my pals from those radio days were Richard Widmark and Ed Begley, Sr." Carl Swenson, another radio colleague of Adams, played the lead in the original, ill-fated production of All the Luck.

"Arthur's also a friend and neighbor," says Adams of Miller, "and I've been in a few of his later works, including Danger Memory [with Geraldine Fitzgerald] and The Last Yankee. I played old men in both," he cracks, "which is alright with me." He recalls that he started out playing "a typical Saroyan messenger" in a play ironically called Get Away, Old Man. Adams spent several summers at the O'Neill Theater Center, but this is his first time at the WTF. "I've enjoyed this experience so much," he enthuses. "Scott's such a terrific director. He called me in when they read the play for the Roundabout's subscription audience earlier this year, and here I am."

This revival of The Man Who Had All the Luck was the brainchild of Ellis, whose previous three years at the landmark Massachusetts summer theater have produced both The Rainmaker revival (prior to its Roundabout/Broadway engagement) and Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery (before its award winning Off-Broadway run). And Ellis isn't even on the WTF's five-year honor roll yet! Based on that Roundabout reading of All the Luck, the director approached his friend Michael Ritchie--WFT producer for the last six years--about putting the 57-year-old play on its feet at the 47-year-old theater fest. "And that," explains Ritchie, "is one of the ways a project gets chosen at Williamstown." He quickly adds that he also personally reads between 150 and 200 scripts a year as part of the final selection process.

Ritchie has been at the WTF a total of 11 years, having inherited the mantle six years ago following the untimely death of Nikos Psacharopoulos, who led the WTF for 34 years. A self-proclaimed theater anomaly, Ritchie is one of very few non-directors to helm a festival of this size and reputation. Tall, wiry, and no relation to the recently deceased film director of the same name, Ritchie had a successful career as a stage manager, working for years with such directors as Joe Mantello and Nicholas Martin. The latter, a six-year WTF-er, is back this summer directing Frank McGuinness' Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, starring Tony Award-winner Richard Easton (The Invention of Love) and Scott Wolf (Side Man), August 8-19. Martin is also currently in rehearsal for the Broadway transfer of last season's WTF production of Hedda Gabler. Coincidentally, Hedda stars Ritchie's wife, Kate Burton, who does one WTF show each season (she recently completed a two week run in Winter's Tale). Prior to directing the upcoming Roundabout revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, Mantello is at the WTF helming an evening of two one acts--Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and Albee's Zoo Story--co-starring Sam Rockwell and Zeljko Ivanek, July 25-August 5.

Says Ritchie, "I'm certainly not a Jack O'Brien [artistic director of The Old Globe in San Diego] or a Dan Sullivan [Seattle Rep]. I've neither the desire nor the skill to direct. I never even studied theater; I was a sociology major for two years. Fortunately, I'm living proof that theater is a meritocracy. I was completely happy as a stage manager, because you're at the very center of everything that happens on a show and you know what everybody's going through"--experience that aids immeasurably in his current position.

In addition to its regular productions of smaller, new works at the 99-seat Nikos Stage and larger-cast revivals at the 520 seat Main Stage, the WTF holds weekend cabaret performances (hosted by comic Lewis Black) wherein festival participants from every echelon can showcase their musical comedy skills; not too long ago, Gwyneth Paltrow sang and Stephen Collins accompanied himself on the guitar. WTF also sponsors an annual, free show performed outdoors by the interns (this year's presentation was Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird) and the Greylock Theatre Project works with youngsters from a nearby housing development. And there is a regular Friday afternoon series of new play readings and workshops, this year including a panel discussion with the cast, director, and production staff of The Man Who Had All the Luck. Ritchie, who moderated the panel, is at the center of all this activity, along with WTF general manager Deborah Fehr and associate producer Jenny C. Gersten (daughter of Lincoln Center's Bernie).

It's rare for an actor or director to turn down a chance to work at the WTF; as Ritchie says, "It's a limited commitment of five weeks for them to be involved with some really high quality productions. But we spend a full nine months a year preparing for our three month season [11 shows, both new and revivals] and we use the combined services of at least 500 people."

This season's Equity company alone has 74 actors, including such Tony-winning returnees as Easton, Bebe Neuwirth, and Edward Herrmann; Obie winners Kristine Nielsen, Rocco Sisto, and Michael Gross; and first-timer Eric Bogosian. Neuwirth and Bogosian trod the boards of the Nikos Stage in Diva, a dark comedy about the netherworld of television sitcoms by TV vet Howard M. Gould, who knows whereof he jokes. In addition to Mason, acting "rookies" this year include two film stars making their WFT debuts: the afore-praised O'Donnell and David Keith, who'll be appearing in the 1929 Elmer Rice epic Street Scene. Also new to the festival are such Broadway and Off-Broadway folk as Joel (Taller Than a Dwarf) Rooks, Ned (The Green Bird) Eisenberg, and Jodie (Snakebit) Markell. Along with Nielsen, they're part of director Michael Greif's handpicked, 60-member ensemble for the Rice play.

Rooks recalls, "My agent called and only got as far as saying, 'Michael Greif is looking...' when I said, 'Yes!' He's a really smart, actor-friendly director. Rehearsals have been very fast, but it never feels like a pressure cooker because Michael always has a smile or a joke. With a cast of 60, there's no downtime for him." The epitome of a New York "working actor," Rooks arrived with bike in tow, straight from a workshop at Vassar's New York Stage and Film. And he'll be leaving immediately after Street Scene closes to play Lizzie's dad in The Rainmaker at Tennessee's famed Clarence Brown Theatre, co-starring again with David Keith. "It's just a happy coincidence," Rooks grins.

Collegiality is a hallmark of the WTF, as evidenced by the terrific opening night party for The Man Who Had All the Luck, attended by cast members, friends, and family. Miller may have been a no-show, but Sam Robards' mom, Lauren Bacall, was there to cheer on her boy (who may also currently be seen on the big screen in A.I.).

There's a 36-hour turnaround at the WTF, starting right after each show's final Sunday matinee; the current set is struck and the new one is in by Monday, just in time for a Tuesday night full dress/tech rehearsal prior to a Wednesday night preview. Taking advantage of their 48-hour break, several of the actors will head to New York for a day. But they're all delighted to return to the place that Ned Eisenberg has dubbed "character actor heaven."

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