As I sat enthralled by Scott Ellis' superlative production of Arthur Miller's 1944 flop, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," I found myself wondering, had I been a reviewer 58 years ago, whether I would have appreciated the play any more than my colleagues. Miller has acknowledged that the first production, which lasted all of four nights, was misguidedly played as a folk comedy. Nor was the American theater, still focused on the kitchen sink, ready for Miller's voice, which, like Ibsen's, sees unavoidable fate even within the mundane. It's not hard to see why the play was sold short. The first act takes a while to come into focus, and, if the Midwestern characters were played as folk types rather than real people, it might have seemed precious. The title character, David Beaves - for whom Chris O'Donnell is a perfect fit - lucks out in everything. When he is unable to stand up to the menacing father of the girl he wants to marry, the father is handily killed in a car accident. A mechanic by trade, David is confronted by a car he may not be able to fix - a European luxury sedan called a Marmon. Miraculously, a European who knows what to do turns up and helps him. It all seems too easy. Then, in the second act, his unbroken luck is contrasted with his brother Amos' life - and the play suddenly explodes. Miller has found the type of situation he has explored throughout his career - the cruel ways fate cripples families. The scene where Amos, a gifted pitcher, is turned down by a major-league scout, has the most emotional electricity I've felt since the 1999 "Death of a Salesman."
Amos' failure heightens David's sense of guilt about his good fortune, a situation akin to what many Americans must have felt in 1944, anxious about whether their extraordinary historical fortune could last - an image with clear reverberations today. The scene must not have worked at all in the original production. But here, Ellis has staged it with tremendous power. It begins with a beautifully written monologue by the scout, elegantly performed by David Wohl, gently but implacably dashing the hopes of both Amos and the father who has coached him obsessively. When the scout leaves, Amos, played by Ryan Shively, an actor of incredible grace and strength, attacks his father, played by the veteran James Rebhorn, who has never been more impressive. O'Donnell, who empathizes with both, tears himself apart trying to separate them. Sam Robards brings great dignity to the foreign mechanic who becomes David's closest friend. Mason Adams has wily charm as David's mentor. Samantha Mathis is deeply moving as his bewildered wife. Richard Riehle evokes wrenching pathos as their childless friend. This cast has no weak links. Allen Moyer's sets have an appropriate simplicity (set off by an actual, resplendent Marmon). Michael Krass' costumes have understated period flair. Tom Kochan's incidental music reminds one of Aaron Copland, who, like Miller, found resounding heroism in common men. Yes, there are a few too many plot twists, perhaps even too many characters. But "Luck" first sounds notes that Miller would continue to play with greater skill and understanding. Though it took 60 years and a great director to do it justice, "Luck" was an auspicious prelude to an extraordinary career.
In 1944, a critic summed up "The Man Who Had All the Luck" by saying "It has tried and that is something."
Had the critic been prescient enough, he'd have said, "Better luck next time."
The playwright in question, you see, was Arthur Miller, but when his first play premiered on Broadway, he was just another unknown playwright - and "The Man" ran just four performances.
Did it deserve to fail? Based on its revival, which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater, the answer is yes.
This time around, however, it will be helped by a subscription audience and two movie stars, Chris O'Donnell and Samantha Mathis. Of course, the reputation of one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century won't hurt it either.
In retrospect it's fascinating to see some of the elements, structural and thematic, that in a few short years would produce "All My Sons" and "Death of a Salesman."
Here, as there, you find a questionable father, two sons and an Ibsenite concept (not quite solidified here) of character and chance playing a game of pre-destined fate.
Here the hero is David Beeves (O'Donnell), a mechanic who lives a charmed life.
First he gets the girl he loves (Mathis) when her father, who opposes the match, is killed by an auto. The auto - a vintage 1938 Marmon, on stage in all its authoritative glory - needs a tricky repair.
Enter Gus (Sam Robards), a skilled Austrian immigrant mechanic who comes through the repair shop door in the wee small hours and fixes the car while David sleeps.
By the second act David is awaiting the birth of his first child. Gus, having failed in his own garage venture, now works for him. Not only that, but David's gas station has just had a highway exit built next to it and the mink farm he's bought is booming.
Meanwhile, David's brother (Ryan Shiveley), trained from youth by his father (James Rebhorn) to be a Major League pitcher, has finally got a baseball scout to come to watch him play.
What could go wrong? Quite a lot could go wrong, and eventually we discover whether it does or not.
The suspense is less than thrilling.
There are brilliantly written passages here, though perhaps they seem even better in hindsight.
Scott Ellis' direction is decently crisp, the cast effective, and both O'Donnell and Mathis do their best to make tunes out of one note. Allen Moyer's setting, however - apart from the car - is as dreary and ill-proportioned as the play.
Unthreateningly handsome, with cornfed brawn, a polite-to-old-ladies manner and an earnest bleat in the voice, the young actor Chris O'Donnell certainly has the traditional mien of the All-American boy. He's a natural for the lead role in ''The Man Who Had All the Luck,'' Arthur Miller's 1940 play, subtitled ''A Fable,'' about America and the burdens of unmitigated good fortune, which opened in a stirring and rich revival last night on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater. I mean, he's really a natural. Known for playing sidekicks in popular films -- he was Robin in two of the ''Batman'' movies, and he starred with Al Pacino in ''Scent of a Woman'' -- Mr. O'Donnell had never appeared onstage before ''The Man Who Had All the Luck'' was produced last summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
Mr. O'Donnell played the title character, David Beeves, a young Midwesterner who, with seemingly unearned fate, gets the girl, the business, the land and the legacy, while all of those around him fall victim to life's vicissitudes and suffer enormous disappointments. His performance then made it clear that some gifts -- like effortless charisma and physical certainty -- do indeed descend on some people as if ordained.
And now, as he leads a splendid cast in a production directed by Scott Ellis that the Roundabout Theater has imported largely intact from Williamstown, Mr. O'Donnell appears, if anything, more in control of a character who is blessed (and cursed) with being preternaturally in control. It's a remarkably complex and counterintuitive performance. You can't be naïve and play naïveté so well; nor can you be conscience stricken and play ambivalence with such conviction.
The play, written by Mr. Miller when he was 25, was his first to appear on Broadway, where, in 1944, it closed after four performances. And from the current production you can understand why producers would take a chance on a youthful playwright and why audiences and critics were not so eager to join them. It is a serious, ambitious work by a precocious and perhaps overreaching young writer, populated by characters with blunt purpose; a little slow moving, particularly in the opening act; and a little pedantic, particularly in the third (and closing) act. Reviewing the original production in The New York Times, Lewis Nichols said, with a yawn: '' 'The Man Who Had All the Luck' lacks either the final care or the luck to make it a good play. But it has tried, and that is something.''
What no one could have known of course is what Mr. Miller would go on to accomplish (''Death of a Salesman'' was only five years away), and I can think of no other revival that is so enriched by retrospective knowledge. Anyone interested in Mr. Miller's career, which has had an extraordinary reconsideration in recent seasons, will be fascinated by the strong roots he planted in this early play.
Indeed, those who have seen any of the fine revivals of recent vintage on Broadway -- including ''Salesman,'' ''The Price,'' ''A View From the Bridge,'' ''The Ride Down Mount Morgan'' and ''The Crucible,'' which is currently at the Virginia Theater -- are likely to find their appreciation of those plays enhanced by a viewing of this one. Here are the issues of brotherly competition and fatherly betrayal that Mr. Miller explored again and again. (The scene in ''Salesman'' in which Willy Loman's egregious betrayal of his family is revealed to his elder son, Biff, has a clear antecedent here.)
Here are the admonitions against succumbing wholeheartedly to the lures of capitalism and against the sanctimony of ugly-Americanism. Here are the pained ambivalence of Mr. Miller toward the so-called American dream and the agony of a citizen playwright over a wayward national conscience.
All of these things were excitingly evident when I saw the production last summer, but a couple of other contextual elements weren't. One is the recent opening, 10 blocks north, of ''Oklahoma!,'' the revived 1943 musical in which Rodgers and Hammerstein presented a far different picture of America than Arthur Miller ever has. The director of that show, Trevor Nunn (who is British) and the choreographer, Susan Stroman, have uncovered in it the more ominous underpinnings of the national character. But even so, ''Oklahoma!'' ends with a frontier trial that explicitly vindicates our hero, the symbolic and joyous triumph of expanding democracy.
Contrarily, at the conclusion of ''The Man Who Had All the Luck,'' David Beeves, a man who has made a great life the way the founding fathers made a great nation, simply by landing in the right place and seizing the awesome opportunity, remains a self-doubter. He has just dodged one more bullet, and future prosperity, embodied by his newborn son, seems assured to everyone except himself.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, David's uncertainty seems especially poignant and prescient, and especially opposed to the bullheaded optimism of ''Oklahoma!,'' whose most comic character is a lovable peddler (American enterprise at work!) who happens to be from the Middle East.
In other words, this production of ''Luck'' has a fair amount of luck itself, at least in its remarkable timeliness. The rest of its appeal can be attributed to skill.
To begin with, the play is presented on Allen Moyer's handsome sets -- the garage that houses David's auto-repair business and the home he takes over with his new wife after the death of her father -- that share a vaulting back wall that suggests the unadorned roominess of the American plains. (The props include a magnificent automobile, a 1930 Marmont.)
And the play itself evinces the staunchness that has always characterized the construction of Mr. Miller's work. This is a drama with a fully thought-through dramatic arc and nine large roles, even though, like an apprentice carpenter, Mr. Miller banged in a few crooked nails. When the villainous father of David's fiancée is run over by a car, even the man's daughter shrugs and moves on without a sigh. And the play's structure is long on fundamental theme-fulfilling and short on subtlety.
Several characters, for example, exist to make a single point, that most people succumb to a fateful flaw: J. B. Feller (Richard Riehle), a successful local businessman who invests in David's future, undermines his wish for a son with his drinking. Shory (Dan Moran), a wheelchair-bound veteran, curtailed his own sowing of wild oats with his penchant for whoremongering. Dan Dibble (Mason Adams), an elderly farmer who made a fortune raising mink, foreshadows his own personal calamity with a speech about the necessity of looking after your interests with unremitting vigilance.
All the actors are fine, and they've been welded into a nifty down-home-feeling ensemble by Mr. Ellis. Mr. Adams is marvelously crotchety and self-absorbed in the part, never more so than when he delivers this speech, which defends the principles of capitalism and mink farming. It's a set piece, much like the scene in which a baseball scout, played with the blunt and entertaining élan of caricature by David Wohl, explains his search for the source of a ballplayer's incurable flaw. It's a grand character turn, and a fine use of the sport as a metaphor for the American soul.
Sam Robards, who plays Gustav Eberson, an Austrian immigrant whose expertise and dreams become subservient to David's naturally endowed privileges, hits just the right notes of modesty and gratitude of someone who has bought into the fabled promise of our country. The early scene in which he enters David's garage and helps him repair the Marmont is a finely, sweetly evoked illustration of the forging of a lifelong bond.
The one new cast member is Samantha Mathis, who plays Hester Falk, David's fiancée and then wife. This is the play's only significant female role, which tells us something, I think, about the playwright's youth. Wisely, Ms. Mathis plays the part with the undemonstrative but cheering support of midcentury wifeliness, and as a couple she and Mr. O'Donnell are the image of a small town's favorite sweethearts.
The two of them, like the play itself, evoke another era altogether. As David's persistent fortune makes him ever more paranoid -- he's convinced it's only a matter of time until fate cruelly catches up with him -- she grows desperately helpless. In the middle of the 20th century it was crazy to think that a good-looking young American didn't deserve a golden existence, or that America was living under the sword of Damocles.
"The Man Who Had All the Luck," Arthur Miller's first Broadway production, lasted a rather luckless four performances in 1944. The play essentially sat on the shelf for more than 50 years, even as its author went on to become one of the most successful playwrights of the 20th century. It was finally staged in Los Angeles two years ago, and last summer Scott Ellis' production made news at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Its arrival on Broadway, courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Co., brings things full circle, and, incidentally, concludes the season on a very satisfying note: This sterling staging represents a significant act of theatrical reclamation.
Far more than a piece of juvenilia (Miller wrote it at age 29), "The Man Who Had All the Luck" is not the equal of Miller's greatest achievements -- even as it foreshadows some of them. But it is a sturdy, thoughtful and affecting play nonetheless, and its strengths are showcased in Ellis' sincere and emotionally forthright staging. Led by a performance from Chris O'Donnell that beautifully personifies those qualities, the production reveals the play's natural potency while making no apologies for the bluntness that marks it as the work of a young author more interested in exploring ideas than in subtleties of dramaturgy. (It could reasonably be argued that in this respect Miller hasn't significantly evolved.)
The play is subtitled "a fable," and though its scenes unfold naturalistically, its plot is indeed on the fabulous side. It tells the story of Midwesterner David Beeves (O'Donnell), a wholesome young man whose life, as the title plainly states, is marked by unusual good fortune. As the play begins, he's washing up after a successful day at his new car-repair shop, readying for a reckoning with the wealthy, disapproving father of girlfriend Hester Falk (Samantha Mathis).
Mr. Falk (Edward James Hyland) doesn't wait for him to pay the call, however, but shows up at the garage to deliver an implacable message of disapproval. Before a flummoxed David can run after him to remonstrate, Mr. Falk is most conveniently struck dead. Soon thereafter, when David's career as a mechanic appears to be on the line, a friendly stranger, Gustav Eberson (Sam Robards), comes to the rescue, helping to fix a rich patron's gleaming car and disappearing before the bewildered David can give him the credit.
This miraculously smooth path through life's obstacles would seem to incline a fellow to happiness and self-satisfaction, but the late Mr. Falk's admonishing words to David -- "You're a lost soul, a lost man" -- are closer to the truth. David is plagued by the idea that he hasn't earned his good fortune, and doesn't deserve it; the anxious stammer in his voice says everything about his discomfort in his skin.
That discomfort is only increased by his brother's bum luck. David had been brought up to believe that Amos (Ryan Shively), an ace pitcher tirelessly groomed by their father for major league stardom, was the one destined for greatness. But in the play's most deeply affecting scene, a scout plainly tells the family that his father's myopic training has actually doomed the boy's chances. (The play's astute exploration of the tortured dynamics between a strong-willed father and his sons prefigures such later Miller plays as "All My Sons" and "Death of a Salesman.") Amos' calamity only seems to confirm David's guilty belief that his misfortune is long overdue, and his life becomes a macabre vigil, an anxious wait for delayed retribution.
The ideas the play explores are refreshingly large ones: How does a man rightly measure his value in the world? Can he take pride in success if his heart tells him it isn't earned? Can he outrun a feeling of inferiority inculcated in him from childhood? Can success be appreciated if a man hasn't first felt the sting of failure? Does fate rule our lives or do we steer our own path?
These are plain but profound questions, and the play's approach to them is straightforward, if occasionally a bit bald. David's cynical neighbor, disfigured by a wartime injury, makes the case that free will is a chimera; good luck and bad are parceled out randomly by fate. "A man is a jellyfish. The tide goes in and the tide goes out. About what happens to him, a man has very little to say," he opines. Later, when Gus avers that "there is no justice in the world," David anxiously answers, "If one way or another a man don't receive according to what he deserves inside … well, it's a madhouse."
That such frank commentaries on man's fate seem to come naturally to these small-town Midwesterners of the 1940s is a tribute to the skills of Ellis and his cast, who honor the conviction of Miller's writing by serving it up without too much interpretive varnish. The performances are uniformly fresh and honest and emotionally vivid.
The physical production has the clarity -- and also the ineffably haunting quality -- of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Allen Moyer's whitewashed wooden sets mix authentic period details with an airy touch of abstraction. Many of Michael Krass' costumes have an aptly lived-in look. Tom Kochan's Aaron Copland-esque music strikes the right, slightly mournful note.
O'Donnell's depiction of an honorable young man wrestling with the shadows in his soul is essential to the production's effectiveness. A disappointment by several measures, this Broadway season has nevertheless been notable for its wealth of strong male performances, and O'Donnell's ranks among the season's finest (most impressively, it's also his Broadway debut). The character, like those in fables, is in some ways too good to be true: David would rather court calamity than face the knowledge that the good things in life are not meted out with justice. But O'Donnell's quietly passionate performance renders him recognizably and poignantly human.
The play's cumbersome third act is a sad letdown. It ceases to ask questions and concludes with a patly resounding answer that, it is implied, will give David at last some spiritual solace. A happy ending is appropriate for a fable, of course, but at its best "The Man Who Had All the Luck" lives down that rather apologetic moniker and becomes a moving meditation on how hard it can be for even the most well-favored of men to find a measure of peace in the world.