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A CurtainUp Review
The Man Who Had All the Luck
---Williamstown Theatre Festival Review by Elyse Sommer
The Man Who Had All the Luck could easily be about Arthur Miller -- the grand old man of the American theater who does indeed seem to have all the luck a playwright could have -- awards, international productions, and productions of new as well as old play to make his old age a very good one indeed.
The fact is that this play was written by Miller. Never heard of it? Neither did a lot of other people. The play was written in 1940 and produced in 1944 and was a resounding flop, playing exactly four performances. Despite the not so lucky debut, however, many people recognized Miller's talent.
Last year, a small theater in Los Angeles decided to give audiences a chance to look at The Man Who Had All the Luck in the light of Miller's renewed stardom. We dispatched our LA critic to see it. Now that I've seen the Williamstown Theatre Festival's lovingly staged production, I find her comments about the play, its background and its satisfactions, right on the mark and shall therefore focus my comments on the WTF cast and staging.'
Chris O'Donnell makes an auspicious stage debut as David Beeves, the young man who feels at once unworthy and uneasy about his luck in the face of the disappointments that his relatives and friends must deal with. The rest of the large cast (no doubling here as at LA's Ivy Substation Theater) is so good that each deserves special mention.
The men who contribute to Dave's lucky break are at once moving and funny: Richard Riehle as J. B. Feller, a successful merchant who recommends Dave as the mechanic to the luxury car of Dan Dibble (the excellent Mason Adams}, a mink rancher. Dibble inadvertently runs over Andrew Falk (Edward James Hyland) who hates Dave, which cleares the path for Dave marrying his daughter Hester Falk (Jennifer Dundas) and share her inheritance of her father's farm. Sam Robards is wonderfully witty and wise as Gus, the immigrant who brings Dave luck by arriving just in time to help him fix Dibble's fancy car, but more importantly becomes a friend as well as loyal employee.
Dan Moran is a vivid presence as the embittered but well-meaning Shory who is ready to drop his favorite metaphor -- the one about people just being jellyfish -- into any conversation. The most obvious precursors to some of Miller's most memorable characters are superbly rendered by James Rebhorn and Ryan Shively -- Rebhorn as the elder Beeves who has determinedly geared up his younger son Amos to become a professional baseball player and Shively as the would-be baseball star who loses his cool when he gets out into the ball field. The scene when a scout for the Detroit Tigers dashes all hopes for Amos's baseball career is the play's emotional highlight. The one disappointment in the cast is Jennifer Dundas who would be more sympathetic if she could tone down the shrillness in her voice.
Scott Ellis has pulled together the characters and story so that, unlike some two and a half hour, double intermission revivals, this one has few slow spots. Allen Moyer, whose set greatly enhanced the recently opened revival of A Thousand Clowns, has again outdone himself, this time with two sets -- the first, a barn used as a repair shop, its barn door front serving as a curtain; the second the farmhouse living room of the Falk home that becomes the Beeves home and which retains the barn siding to give a sense of visual unity to the production. In a touch of plush authenticity, a real Marmon (the ultimate luxury car of the 1930s) is wheeled on stage. Kenneth Posner's lighting brilliantly evokes the change of seasons. Michael Krass has most authentically outfitted .
All told, it's apparent that this Miller-in-the-making play has much to offer his many fans, whether as a small, budget production or on a more lavish scale. Readers of this and the review below may want to check out CurtainUp's backgrounder on Arthur Miller which includes links to books, quotes and other Miller plays reviewed -- Authors' Album-- Arthur Miller
Cast (in order of appearance): Chris O'Donnell/ David Beeves, Richard Riehle/J. B. Feller, Dan Moran/Shory, Barbara Sims/Aunt Belle, James Rebhorn/Patterson Beeves, Ryan Shively/Amos Beeves, Jennifer Dundas/Hester Falk, Mason Adams/Dan Dibble, Edward James Hyland/Andrew Falk, Sam Robards/GusEberson, David Wohl/Augie Bellfast.
Review based on July 19, 2001 performance.
The Man Who Had All The Luck debuted in New York in 1944. Its four-day run and reviews so discouraged its young playwright that he vowed he would never write a play again.
If Arthur Miller hadn't changed his mind, we wouldn't have Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and, currently on Broadway, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. And that's not a complete list.
I went to the charming little Ivy Substation theatre which is currently reviving that first, near fatal flop, to check out what would we have if he never wrote another play. Miller called his story of young David Beeves (Paul Gutrecht), for whom luck" drops like fruit from a tree", a fable. Everything seems to go supernaturally right.
In this production, intuitively directed by Dan Fields, Paul freezes at every gift as if sensing the footsteps of unknown gods in the wings. As he sees his friends and family face disappointment and tragedy, his survivor's luck gradually stifles him with guilt and terror. The Metaphysical Question looms large here, with characters taking sides: Shorty (Terry J. Evans), a World War I veteran in a wheelchair who lost his legs not in combat but in a whorehouse furnace explosion, keeps repeating "man is a jellyfish. The tide pushes him every time."
Farmer Falk (Nicholas Saunders), the Old Testament style father of David's beloved Hester (Kellie Waymire), tells Dave ominously, "Nobody but me knows what you are". The awful fascination of a personal perception, no matter how warped and negative, reinforces Dave's feeling of unworthiness and his apprehension that fate is saving up a catastrophe for him. Every man is born with one curse, he tells his wife Hester, whom he marries after her obstructive father is killed in a car crash. Dave is well on his way to being a self-fulfilling prophecy and Miller has said he struggled over whether his character should live or die
Gus (Marcelo Tubert), a European mechanic who is the voice of common sense, speaks of the presence of God in your hands and tells Dave "What matters is whether you lay down or get up again".
Miller has said that he believes he chose the right ending for Dave. Striving to be neither condescending to an early work or sentimentally generous to a youthful writer, we can truthfully say The Man has been lucky again in this production. Director Dan Fields has found a tone missed by the original director (whose name, ironically, was Joe Fields) and the mythic resonances of the play are now more familiar to audiences. Sometimes the action feels rushed and crowded with so many disasters among the supporting characters that not all of them pay off emotionally for the audience.
It's an absorbing production, partly because the cast and production values are so good and because Fields caught Miller's intent. The play is double cast, in unavoidable Los Angeles fashion. At the performance viewed, Paul Gutrecht's David, Marcelo Tubert's Gus and Nicholas Saunders's Falk were particularly memorable. Katherine Ferwerda's set design, created with very few elements a garage and living room, caught the ambience of this country town, as did Dean Cameron's 1930s costumes. Composer Chris Ward used guitar, sometimes evoking a hoarse growl and sometimes tinkling fairy bells, bridges the 1930s and the mythic.
If you were walking into this unknown writer's play in 1944, you'd find characters whose realism and energy sweep you up in their lives. You'd hear some very funny lines and some lyric ones that make you want to listen for more. Promising would be the word for this young man and one would hope he develops the themes touched on -- e.g. guilt between brothers and a father who pushes his son. The bottom line is gratitude that he came of writing age before television with its seductive offers a poor young family man couldn't refuse. If Miller ever chooses to write another fable, he'll find he's grown into its time. As his character Gus tells Dave,"now is a very big piece of forever." Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 29, 2000
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