Who would have dreamt that the first produced play by Arthur Miller, that midcentury scion of Serious American Theater, was a comedy quivering with supernatural yuks? Yet The Man Who Had All the Luck, currently running at the Ivy Substation, throws light on a playfulness that we don’t always associate with the author of The Crucible. Luck, which Miller produced himself on Broadway in 1944, was such a flop that it has acquired a cautionary curse akin to that carved above Tutankhamen‘s tomb. Do Not Open! might well be its advice to theater groups contemplating this work, which Miller adapted from his own unpublished novel of the same name. So great has been the radioactive half-life of failure that clings to this play that this is the first American staging since it closed after its fourth performance. For this reason, the Antaeus Company–Finesilver Shows production can be seen more as an exhumation than a revival.
Coyly set in a time “not so long ago,” Luck unfolds in some archetypal hick town of flannel shirts and fishing holes, where folks drop their conversational g’s and offer such helpful bromides as “Never go lookin‘ for trouble.” David Beeves (Paul Gutrecht) is an earnest young man who owns the only gas station for miles and has his heart set on marrying his childhood sweetheart, Hester Falk (Kellie Waymire). The only obstacle is Mr. Falk (Nicholas Saunders), an implacable old coot who would sooner shoot Dave than allow him to set foot on his farm. Dave’s done nothing particularly heinous other than to be, in the father‘s crusty opinion, “a lost soul” without a goal or direction in life.
When Mr. Falk is suddenly killed in an offstage car accident, Dave is free to marry, but we feel the settling of a curse upon his shoulders. And, sure enough, from here on out he is afflicted with a terrible yet undeniably humorous problem: Every potential travail confronting him miraculously vanishes to make him richer and, it should seem, happier. When the crotchety but wealthy farmer Dan Dibble (Geoffrey Wade) leaves Dave with his unfixable car, a former Detroit mechanic named Gustav (Marcelo Tubert) mysteriously arrives in his shop during the dead of night with the know-how to mend the Marmon’s crankshaft. A state highway abruptly puts Dave‘s gas station on the economic map, and his childless marriage takes a turn to fertility.
Dave is acutely aware of his good fortune’s minuses: the muted resentment of his community, a feeling of unearned accomplishment and, most gnawing, a sense that the law of averages will catch up to him at the worst possible moment — that his Midas touch is merely cruel preparation for a mighty fall.
Dave‘s anticipation of his reversal of fortune drives him to the brink of insanity and at the same time reveals a playful parody of Arthur Miller’s future work: There‘s a father’s suffocating devotion to his son and the subsequent guilt felt by the older man (All My Sons); a conflict that sets brother against brother (The Price); a family life stunted by notions of economic success and failure (Death of a Salesman); and a marriage sexually disfigured by the spouses‘ inability to speak candidly to each other (Broken Glass).
Though Dave is driven to accumulate wealth, even his means to do this — a mink farm — seems like the punch line to a burlesque gag. (He’s not exactly manufacturing cracked aircraft cylinders here — the crisis trigger in All My Sons.) Anti-fur politics aside, when a howling rainstorm and contaminated feed combine to threaten his vast population of mammals, we have to suppress an urge to giggle, especially after having earlier listened to Dan Dibble‘s malarial monologue celebrating the creatures’ personality traits. So when Dave bursts in from the storm and hears the baleful news about the poison he has just fed his animals, we half expect him to wail, “They were all my minks!”
Miller makes Dave Beeves‘ destiny so rigidly defined, so fraught with potential tragedy — so self-consciously Apollonian — that Luck seems less an update of ancient Greek myths than a fractured fairy tale, its elusive moral stuck somewhere between Grimm and Marx. Even the playwright’s trademark obsessions with social responsibility and the hidden cost of material success are skewed here. While there is no direct link between Dave‘s unbroken win streaks in love and commerce, the town around him is littered with the broken lives of friends and family. There’s crippled war vet Shory (Mitch Carter); the heirless, lost-it-all-through-drink J.B. Feller (John Combs); and even the helpful Gustav, whose competing service station went broke.
The foremost shattered dreams, however, belong to Dave‘s father, Patterson, and brother, Amos (Paul Eiding and Mark Doerr, respectively). The patriarch has trained Amos practically from the crib to be a star baseball pitcher, encouraging the lad to work on his arm during winter months in the family basement. Patterson is so concerned with Amos’ sporting future that he can‘t quite bring himself to make the call to an agent who could give the boy a looking over.
This being a Miller play, we pretty much know where Amos’ baseball career is headed from the moment we learn he‘s planning one. When father and son learn the awful truth themselves, Amos becomes the one to blame his brother for possessing invincible luck that in some unprovable way seems to come at the expense of others. And, normally, we might share Amos’ outrage, but Miller‘s play, a goofy mix of Ibsen and David Lynch, never allows us to take the suffering of others seriously.
This Antaeus-Finesilver effort is the kind of evening that makes critics go soft and gooey inside, proof positive that there is a divine reason for theater existing in Los Angeles. Director Dan Fields plays the text like a xylophone, parlaying the sometimes heavy-handed script’s weaknesses into its very strengths, and knowing just when to make his fine cast lighten up but never enough to let the night slide into camp. This is no more evident than in the way he handles the tricky relationship between the Beeves brothers. A line like “How‘s the arm?,” when asked of the pale, womanless Amos, carries with it rather obvious masturbatory connotations, and even a pathetic detail like Patterson’s digging a trench in his cellar to accommodate his growing pitching prodigy (while, at the same time, carving a fatal rut for him) has a ghoulishly jokey flavor about it. And yet, when Amos realizes he may never become another Christy Mathewson, his crushing disappointment — and oedipal rage — is palpable.
The ensemble is double cast, with Gutrecht, in the performance I saw, firmly in command, playing the haunted David with a mixture of lazy-eyed pioneer optimism and primal angst. Katherine Ferwerda‘s two-locale set, dominated by planetarium star maps, and Matthew O’Donnell‘s empathetic lighting plot capture the mystery of destiny that Miller had in mind, along with the male bonhomie of an old-time gas-station garage and the genteel claustrophobia of a farmhouse parlor. Sound designer Robbin E. Broad crisply delivers recordings of Chris Ward’s jarring slide-guitar riffs (performed by John Solomon) that wryly comment upon the story‘s many tonal shifts. Dean Cameron’s period costuming always reminds us of the setting‘s prewar milieu while never drawing too much attention to itself, although he first attires Mr. Dibble in a glorious grim-reaper outfit of long, black coat and funereal hat. These design elements all converge to resuscitate Miller’s maiden effort and leave us feeling what its first audience should have realized, that this is a promising first play by a talented writer.