“The Man Who Had All the Luck” was Arthur Miller’s first Broadway play, closing after only four performances. Since that initial production in 1944, the play has been unrevived in America, and almost unmentioned, until now. Given last year’s successful Brian Dennehy revival of “Death of a Salesman” and the long-delayed Broadway bow of “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” there’s a renewed interest in all things Miller, so it’s an appropriate moment to take a look at this early effort.
It’s a worthy endeavor. Intriguing for its historical import and the reflections it provides on Miller’s later works, the play also has enough drive and passion to compensate for its obvious flaws.
The play centers on David Beeves (Paul Gutrecht), a young mechanic in Michigan who finds that everything seems to go his way. If his girlfriend’s father opposes their marriage, there’s a convenient accident; if he can’t handle an important job, an expert miraculously appears to help him; if his gas station is failing, the state decides to build a highway right next to it.
Those around him struggle with difficulties. David’s wealthy pal J.B. (John Combs) is an alcoholic and can’t seem to have kids. His brother Amos (Mark Doerr), raised from toddlerhood by their dad (Philip Proctor) to become a baseball pitcher, can’t seem to catch the big break. Neighboring store owner Shory (Terry J. Evans) suffers from paralysis.
But David is blessed, and before long, he’s a happy husband and a prosperous businessman. The problem is that David doesn’t feel that he deserves all this good fortune. “It’s good to be lucky, isn’t it?” David is asked at one point. He responds with another question: “Isn’t it better if things came from something inside you?” Gradually, David’s luck begins to wear heavily on him, and he starts looking around the corner for the terrible event he feels must be coming. His wife Hester (Kellie Waymire) and his friend Gustav (Marcelo Tubert) begin to notice that he’s becoming unhinged.
There are, as one can guess, reasons the play has sat silently all these decades, primarily an exceedingly earnest tone, some very clunky dramaturgy, and some overwrought metaphors. Truth be told, these are stylistic troubles that, despite his rise in stature and respect, Miller never fully cured. In fact, “The Man Who Had All the Luck” possesses many of the strengths — and weaknesses — of Miller’s best known works, only more plainly laid out.
In terms of the positives, the play is populated with well-drawn characters who are deeply flawed and yet sympathetic. And Miller, even at a young age, had a strong sense of how ideas and principals could provide passion — the influence of Ibsen can be seen clearly. It’s so easy to forgive the obvious holes in the plotting here — for example, when lots of offstage events seem to happen in an unrealistic time frame.
What’s more grating is the fact that his women characters are cardboard thin (they didn’t always improve much) and his language strives mightily toward poetry but frequently falls well short. The pretentiousness of a line like “A man is a jellyfish; it’s the tide that pushes him in and out, in and out… ” is apparent, but it’s not really any worse than some of the more affected lines from “Death of a Salesman,” which can’t be as easily chalked up to immaturity and experimentation.
The production under Dan Fields’ direction is solid, never too realistic or too purely declarative. The costumes can be a bit precious, and Chris Ward’s music doesn’t really work and occasionally intrudes upon the scenes. Katherine Ferwerda’s set design moves nicely from a garage to a well-furnished home. The play is double-cast, except for Gutrecht’s David, and everyone is certainly on the same page, working together as an ensemble. Gutrecht makes an appealing lead, and in many ways he has a character who’s a lot easier to root for than Miller’s later protagonists.