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Offbeat director fathers ‘All My Sons’

Simon McBurney experiments with classic

Despite all the attention surrounding Katie Holmes and her Broadway debut in “All My Sons,” it might not be the perf of the Hollywood transplant that decides the fate of this Arthur Miller revival. The long haul may be determined by the audience’s taste for British director Simon McBurney and his experimental take on an American classic.

Considering Miller is often regarded as a master of Yank realism, McBurney is not an obvious choice to helm such a high-profile remount, which also stars John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson and opens its limited run Oct. 16.

After all, McBurney’s only other Rialto credit is a revival of Ionesco’s absurdist drama “The Chairs” from Complicite, the British theater company he founded in 1983. The troupe is known for boundary-pushing work like “Mnemonic,” the multimedia exploration of memory that played Gotham in 2001.

So why is this edgy helmer steering a 1947 drama about a businessman who knowingly sells shoddy parts for American military planes?

“I didn’t know how history would judge the production, but I knew it would be distinctive,” says producer Eric Falkenstein, explaining the choice of helmer.

If nothing else, McBurney immediately dispenses with realism. Before the first scene, the entire cast steps onstage to announce they’re about to begin. Lithgow, who plays duplicitous businessman Joe Keller, reads from Miller’s stage directions. Then a stylized storm harbingers two hours of overtly theatrical flourishes, including portentous video projections and dramatic underscoring amid minimalist sets.

McBurney says the play needs this approach, adding that during a chance meeting in 2001, Miller himself told him that directors take his plays too literally.

“I took this as a provocation,” McBurney remembers. “And it became apparent to me the moment I read ‘All My Sons’ that it’s structured like a Greek tragedy. It’s ludicrously heightened already.”

So far, audiences seem intrigued by the approach, or at least, they don’t mind watching Holmes perform in a heady show. During previews, the production has regularly been the week’s top-grossing play, even outperforming the splashy revival of “Equus,” toplined by Daniel Radcliffe.

McBurney, who also has nabbed acting roles in films like “The Golden Compass” and “The Last King of Scotland,” agrees that he wants every piece of his production to feel cohesive. Achieving that often requires heavy experimentation, sometimes not long before a production opens.

For instance, he toyed with a literal backyard set for “All My Sons” before concluding he wanted only the barest essentials: a tree, a door, a few bits of chain-link fence, etc.

“I drive designers crazy because I refuse to decide on anything,” McBurney admits. “I just feel like every element has to relate to the stage you’re in with your thinking.”

This can also thwart the traditional Broadway spending pattern. McBurney quips, “For this production, I had to guide the producers to hold their money back. I had to say, ‘Let’s spend it late when we know what we’re really going to have.’ ”

The helmer’s commitment to revision has produced some of “All My Sons’ ” most distinctive touches, such as having actors flank the stage when they’re not performing. It was an accidental insight: During rehearsal, the cast was sitting on the perimeter of the action, and McBurney realized they implied the play’s larger community.

Those discoveries define McBurney’s style. “If you don’t push things to their limits,” he says, “then you don’t discover their real theatrical language.”