Saturday, November 22, 2008

All My Funds

They say there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway and at these prices I’m not surprised.

I went to the theater the other night see in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and there was so much drama going on that it rolled off the stage and into my life.

The production stars John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and…Katie Holmes. Yes, that Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise’s wife, blah, blah, yak, yak, you know the drill.

“All My Sons” opened on Broadway in 1947, back when the average weekly salary was about 46 bucks and theater tickets were about seven. How much did our tickets cost? Why, funny you should ask. They went for a mere…$116 each.

Yes, that’s crazy, but we got them right before the stock market collapse, back in that strangely distant yet recent time, when costly theater tickets seemed like a manageable extravagance, rather than a certifiable act of insanity. What a difference a depression makes.

The theater was packed on this night, but I suspect there were a lot of people looking at the price on their ticket stubs, recalling their sinking retirement accounts and muttering, “what the hell was I thinking?”

Still, there’s nothing like the Broadway experience. I was walking down West 45th Street on way to the theater after a particularly trying day at work—which included a round trip to Norwalk, Conn.—and I perked up looking all the people streaming into theaters with their blazing marquees. You can’t get this kind of energy out of an I-Pod.

And we did get to see Katie Holmes. Now I know some of you lowlifes out there are probably thinking, “hell, for that kind of money you should get to sleep with Katie Holmes.”

Well, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You don't see me saying stuff like that, do you? Go wash your minds out with soap.

Now to be honest “All My Sons” isn’t Arthur Miller’s best work, but it deals with serious issues of responsibility and honor, and it marks a turning point in his career.

This was his second play, following the four-night demise of his first work, which was ironically titled “The Man Who Had All the Luck.” Miller had said that if “All My Sons” didn’t succeed, he would find another line of work. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

While it was written some 50-odd years ago, the story still resonates today. Joe Keller is a factory owner who orders his partner to ship defective airplane parts to the Defense Department during World War II, an act that leads to the deaths of 21 pilots. The partner goes off to jail while Keller is set free to enjoy prosperity after the war.

The issue of defense contractors certainly strikes a nerve in these days of Halliburton, only back then people who got our soldiers killed either went to the slammer or had the decency to kill themselves. Those were the days, my friend.

I had seen “All My Sons” a few years ago at the Westport Country House with Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburg and I thought it was okay, but nothing special.

My favorite version of the story is the film with Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster, but that might have something to do with those two tremendous actors playing the lead roles.

The bad news started as soon as we sat down, cracked open our programs and found Diane Wiest would not be appearing in tonight’s performance.

How’s that? We shelled out all this money and now one of the top performers wasn’t going to show? I sat there fuming while my credit card gently wept.

Then the show started and…well, I wasn’t impressed. I enjoyed John Lithgow’s performance, but the director made some odd choices, staging the play like classical Greek theater.

I confess I didn’t enjoy Katie Holmes at all and I’m not just saying that to be a Katie hater (hata?). She came off as shrill and unnatural, but, looking back, I wonder how much of that was her fault and how much blame should go to the director.

Curtain Call

One of the other actors moved around the strange so oddly, doing this golf-swing pantomime that made me think of Ed Norton's bit in The Honeymooners when he stands up and addresses the ball: "Hel-lo, ball!"

There were echo effects that I found disruptive, incidental music that was distracting, and rear-projection that really wasn’t necessary.

Meanwhile, back in the audience, some loser behind us starts coughing all over my sister, drowning out the actors while spraying his germs all of the first 10 rows.

I've had enough problems with my health to be sympathetic, but this guy sounded like he unhooked himself from an iron long to be here. The show must go on applies to the actors, not the audience.

This guy should have taken a cue from Diane Wiest and stayed the hell home. Of course, she wasn’t paying 116 bucks to get it, so for that kind of money you’ll drag yourself off your death bed to make it to the show on time.

The cougher finally toned down to a mild gag. At intermission, we stood up to leave when I noticed my seat was stuck. I always lift my seat so people can get in and out of the aisle easier.

Only this thing wouldn’t budge. Finally, I yanked on it and the woman sitting behind me—I think she was the cougher’s wife—lets out this shriek—owwww!—like she's being chopped in half...which wouldn't have been a bad idea.

She had somehow managed to stretch her legs under my seat and then sat while I stood there in front of her struggling to lift the damn chair. And then she makes this awful noise, like Stinky from the old Abbott & Costello Show. (“Not so harrrrrd!”)

“I’m sorry,” I sputtered, mortified by any kind of attention. I was convinced there was going to be a scene, with the husband coughing curses all move me while I crushed his wife's head in my chair.

And what the hell was I sorry for? That she was an idiot? If you see a car coming toward you, genius, get out the way. Or better yet, stay put, and do us all a favor.

Fortunately, there were no further incidents and we watched the rest of the show in peace. Most audience got up at the end, of course, for the standing ovation, but I refused to budge from my seat.

The standing ovation used to be a special gesture, a sign that the performers and the playwright had gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Now people give the washroom attendant a standing ovation. Besides, I was afraid if I stood up the schmuck behind me would start screaming again.

So it wasn’t a magical night at the theater, but we had a good time. Now, however, we realize we can’t drop money on shows like this anymore. Looks like we’ll be doing local theater, puppet shows, and poetry readings for the duration.

I got an e-mail offering discount prices on “All My Sons,” dropping the price down to $64 bucks, but I deleted the thing without reading it. Just like my investment accounts, it’s best not to look at this stuff right now.

I finally got to see Diane Wiest, but only on the screen, in Synecdoche, New York, where the ticket was only 11 bucks, a steal by comparison. I thought about giving her a standing ovation, but I refrained.

There was one point in “All My Sons” where a character tells Keller how he was impressed by Joe’s factory, saying “it looked like GM.”

“I only wish it looked like GM,” Lithgow said with a chuckle.

The audience chuckled, too, only this was gallows humor, as we knew all too well that one of the titans of American industry now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

But that line was written in different age, back when the American economy was booming, factories actually built things, people felt hopeful, and theater tickets didn’t cost 116 bucks.


BestViewInBrooklyn said...

Well done. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! I like teaching _AMS_. The kids actually like it too. Although, it may be because it's so much shorter than other works we read. :)

Rob K said...

It's a good story, really, just not his best. And this production had some problems, including the price tag.