“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.