Facebook Twitter

Miller’s ‘The Man Who Had All The Luck’ gets 2nd chance

SHARE Miller’s ‘The Man Who Had All The Luck’ gets 2nd chance

NEW YORK — On Nov. 23, 1944, a drama called "The Man Who Had All the Luck" opened on Broadway to downbeat if not entirely discouraging reviews.

Writing the next day in The New York Times, critic Lewis Nichols said the work about a young man distraught by his extraordinary good fortune "lacks either the final care or the luck to make it a good play. But it has tried, and that is something."

Yet the production closed after only four performances, leaving the discouraged author to think that maybe he should be writing prose instead. "But then the itch returned, and I wrote 'All My Sons,"' says Arthur Miller.

Now audiences at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts are getting a rare chance to re-examine Miller's Broadway debut, a play that showed the promise of the great things to come, from "All My Sons" to "Death of a Salesman" and beyond.

"It's a Miller play that nobody knows," says its Williamstown director, Scott Ellis. "You really see the beginning of Arthur Miller. He says that his interest in the relationships between brothers and fathers and sons started here."

"The Man Who Had All the Luck" was written over a period of several months, according to Miller, who recalled the play's history in an interview from his Connecticut home.

"I was spending some time in the middle of Ohio, and the play was based, in part, on a young man I knew about, although I never met him," he said.

"I had been writing plays since 1935, and this was nearly 10 years later. I had written a lot of radio plays for commercial radio. So I had a good deal of experience by this time."

The plot details the upward climb of David Beeves, a small-town mechanic, as he goes from one success to another, in both his public and private lives. Along the way, he watches friends and family falter, while he doesn't suffer a misstep.

"David is really obsessed with this question of whether there will be retribution because of all his good fortune," Miller added. "And it is more remarkable because he comes from a background with no advantages of any kind. He doesn't have much education. He's just an instinctively good businessman."

The play's quick demise on Broadway hit Miller hard.

"When something fails, everybody flees," he said. "It made me determined never to write another play — but I loved writing them, so I had to go back. It made no sense, but I just did it.

Calling "The Man Who Had All the Luck" a fable, did not help its chances in 1944 either, Miller said. The play opened in a season whose big hits included "I Remember Mama," "Dear Ruth," "Bloomer Girl" and "Anna Lucasta," all competing with a smash musical from the previous year, "Oklahoma!"

"Nobody knew what to make of 'The Man Who Had All the Luck,' since the play was not a realistic or naturalistic piece of work," Miller said. "That kind of a play was absolutely outside the tradition of Broadway at the time. It is a fable in the sense that, unlike real life, every character on stage is obsessed by the same idea, which happens in fables."

Many of the characters are types, often spouting divergent opinions on whether man is the master of his own fate or buffeted about by chance.

The Williamstown production runs through Sunday and stars Chris O'Donnell as the title character, a young man of 22 described by Miller in the play's script as "wondrous, funny, naive and always searching."

For Miller and Ellis, the production is a chance to re-examine the past; for O'Donnell, best known for his roles in several Batman movies and the film "Scent of a Woman," "The Man Who Had All the Luck" is a leap into the future.

"It's been really scary for me," said the actor, who, except for one line in his eighth-grade play back in Winnetka, Ill., is making his stage debut. He landed in Willamstown because of an anticipated writers' strike in Hollywood. He was looking for work and his agent sent him the script.

"I thought I would be a real wimp if I didn't go audition for Scott Ellis. I didn't know what to expect. All I ever read are action-movie scripts, which are so boring," he said with a laugh.

The play's language intrigued him; so did the character. "It's like you're off on this ride: 'Hold on tight and just go,' " O'Donnell said.

"I think Chris has some sort of innate understanding of the character," said Ellis. "There is innocence about David Beeves, which is part of who Chris is.

"I've also worked with Woody Harrelson, who hasn't done a lot of stage work either. The qualities they both bring to the stage, an enthusiasm, an eagerness to learn, is very right."

Ellis first read "The Man Who Had All the Luck" after he was given a copy of the script by Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company. He immediately fell in love with the play.

"It seemed very fresh," Ellis said. "Arthur is dealing with the American dream. Of course, the American dream fails a lot of people. The whole question of, 'Do we have control over our destiny, or are we just these little atoms floating?' All of those things, I found fascinating."

The Roundabout did a reading, which Miller attended and which pleased all the participants, including the playwright. Ellis then took the play to Michael Ritchie, who runs the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and its production this summer was set.

The play is not entirely unknown. It was published and, from time to time, has had productions, particularly in England, where audiences are more receptive to Miller's work. There even was a revival in a small theater in Los Angeles last year.

Miller says he has no thoughts of revising "The Man Who Had All the Luck," especially after all these years.

"I don't know what I would do," he said. "It's what it is, and it seems to work very nicely onstage.

"Arthur has been very generous with me," Ellis said. "I am not cutting the play at all. We are doing it in three acts, as he wrote it. I don't think you should ask Arthur Miller at age 85 to go back and look at something he wrote when he was in his 20s. I think it is important to see that play, what he was dealing with and starting to explore for the first time."