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The Man Who Had All the Looks:
Chris O'Donnell tackles Arthur Miller
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Although you frequently hear that certain plays fare poorly with critics and at the box office because they are ahead of their time, that is probably never quite the case. They may, though, float apart from their time, slightly out of sync with prevailing sensibilities. This could be true of Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven, which collapsed when first unveiled in 1938 but is currently having its second successful Broadway revival. It's also how Arthur Miller explains the initial failure of The Man Who Had All the Luck, which has come to Broadway for the first time in 58 years.

In 1944, All the Luck played for all of four performances and temporarily sent Miller scurrying away from theater to try a novel, Focus. About the quick fold, Miller has a reasonable theory: "The American theater then was almost totally naturalistic, in the most prosaic sense of the word," he recently told The New York Times' Mel Gussow. "It was a great struggle to get people to accept anything but kitchen-sink drama. My play didn't fit any categories."

It still doesn't, unless it's to be filed along with curiosities like Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales under the heading "Worthwhile but Almost-Forgotten Plays from Important Playwrights." Which is decidedly what The Man Who Had All the Luck is. Yes, the piece is of note because in the second of its three acts, there's a flare-up between a father and his two boys that foreshadows conflicts in Miller's All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. The play is also what we now think of as Milleresque in that it contains elements of male competition and frustration dealt with in A View From the Bridge.

But Miller identifies the The Man..., which was rediscovered for last season's Williamstown Theatre Festival schedule, as a "fable." The tag applies. Though the play touches on themes and subjects that Miller would examine with more of a theatrical wallop when he matured into his 30s, it also has a bittersweet allegorical air to be found nowhere in his later work. David Beeves (Chris O'Donnell), a mechanic who considers himself to have more luck than skill, finds himself thriving in the late-Depression Midwest. He marries his longtime sweetheart, Hester Falk (Samantha Mathis), after her father Andrew (Edward James Hyland), who adamantly opposed the match, is run over by a car. David's business grows when Gustav Eberson (Sam Robards), an Austrian who is handy with automobiles, shows up serendipitously. The business expands even more when the state plants a major highway near David's station.

The good fortune that David enjoys runs counter to the bad breaks experienced by his brother Amos (Ryan Shively). Amos had hoped for a pitching career in big-league baseball, but the ambition is squelched when the savvy scout Augie Belfast (David Wohl) arrives to explain that Amos is the kind of fancy curve-ball hurler who loses his control when game tensions mount. Belfast attributes part of the problem to the isolated training regimen that the boys's father, Pat (James Rebhorn), had developed. When Amos is turned down, David becomes so rattled that he begins to wish for his own afflictions; he longs to feel as hapless as the next guy. In time, his shame becomes so overwhelming that it affects not only Hester and the couple's son but the future of the mink ranch that David has built on his late father-in-law's property.

Spinning a fable in which he wonders how much anyone is responsible for what befalls him, Miller constructs a number of marvelously evocative scenes. The glowering appearance of Andrew Falk and his damning assessment of David ("You come sneakin' every time, like a rat through the fences") is weighty, and it makes the man's unexpected demise all the more startling. Augie Belfast's reasoned and sensitive pronouncements about Amos's expectations and the father-son brawl and estrangement that ensues is heartbreaking. David's frenzied attempts in the third act to contrive for himself a turn for the worse spreads an anxiety in both the other characters and the audience. But even as David finds himself in anguish, the play is informed by an onward-and-upward attitude.

Chris O'Donnell, Samantha Mathis,
and James Rebhorn in
The Man Who Had All the Luck
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
David's plight, of course, registers as less than real: It's more the stuff of myths engineered to explain human behavior than a dramatization of reality. That, needless to say, is why the now-86-year-old playwright uses the "fable" designation. (In his writing, Miller has frequently bowed to the Greeks.) Miller has said that he based the action on a story his first wife's mother told, about a young man she knew who committed suicide. He also has said that, having chosen the subject matter, he felt it wasn't up to him to reach conclusions about whether a productive life is entirely a matter of luck. By the time he's put David's marriage, minks, and paternal obligations at risk, the dramatist does, however, appear to suggest that it makes sense for people to accept what happens to them, good or bad, and then move on. In contemporary parlance, he's saying, "Be proactive."

To cheer Miller 60 years or so after he dreamed up The Man Who Had All the Luck, director Scott Ellis, whose string of previous credits isn't especially stellar, has done his best work to date. In addition to Allen Moyer, who has created an adaptable set that's all blue-white slats and high staircase with tall grass glimpsed through a doorway, the director has rounded up a first-rate production team: Michael Krass for convincing period costumes, Kenneth Posner for motley lighting, Eileen Tague for emphatic sound, and Tom Kochan for some fine fanfare-for-the-common-man music.

Ellis has also signed up a first-rate cast. Foremost, and making a highly creditable Broadway bow, is Chris O'Donnell. The actor, who has used sincerity as a distinguishing mark in such movies as Scent of a Woman and Circle of Friends, demonstrates as David that sincerity has many hues, some of them dark. In the corn-fed-handsome O'Donnell's capable hands, David is a well-meaning man thrown off balance by benevolent forces he can't understand. James Rebhorn, on the other hand, takes on a role that is a departure from his usual line of stuffy, uptight martinets. His Pat is a man of limited intellectual ability who wants something for his sons that transcends his own life and who is confounded when one of the sons comes up short.

Ryan Shively's Amos is a chip off the old block, a strapping, likeable lad trained to do one thing well and then torn from it. Samantha Mathis's Hester also has her heart in the right place. Hester is one of those Miller women who believe that their place is to support their husbands up to the breaking point, and Mathis, who has a plain prettiness, gets the idea across. Mason Adams as the man who lures David into the mink business, and Richard Riehle and Dan Moran as family friends, show their characters' proper gumption. Sam Robards, who is turning into one of the stage's finer character actors, gives a masterful accounting of the enterprising Gustav Eberson, and David Wohl is equally commanding as the gruff but sympathetic bad-news scout. Mary Catherine Wright puts in a couple of appropriately bird-like appearances as David's Aunt Belle. In the role of the only malevolent figure, Edward James Hyland has one scene and sees to it that the memory of the brooding, unforgiving father lingers on.

Jews of a certain age and mindset might look at The Man Who Had All the Luck and feel that it represents Miller dealing in his own oblique manner with Jewish guilt. It's odd that Miller, who is Jewish, rarely writes specifically about Jewish problems, although he has been vocal in other arenas. Maybe this is a case of his having heard a story that resonates with something in his background and then making it into a play; then again, the idea of guilt as specific to any religion may never have crossed his mind. At any rate, he treats the subject with a touching sense of humanity in The Man Who Had All the Luck. How satisfying it must be for him to have lived long enough to see his thoughts finally connect in such a solid production. And, say: Did Miller make his own luck, or was it destiny that he should have this play and The Crucible on Broadway at the same time?

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