Like "Death of a Salesman," which he wrote a few years later, Arthur Miller's 1947 "All My Sons" is about a father who betrays his sons despite his desire to do the best for them.
Unlike Willy Loman, who is a hapless victim of the capitalist system, Joe Keller, the father in "All My Sons," is a success. He justifies having framed his partner and having caused the deaths of 21 American soldiers in World War II on the grounds of being "practical."
Being human, he insists, is a luxury, especially in wartime. "Only the dead ones weren't practical," he rages at his family when their long-suppressed suspicions about him are confirmed.
Despite a largely sensitive production, "All My Sons" now seems like an overloaded circuit, throwing off electrical sparks, but is no longer capable of projecting current.
Throughout the play Miller overstates his case. Had Keller just sent out damaged airplane parts, claiming he was bowing to pressure from Washington, maybe you could buy his own belief in his innocence. Framing his partner adds a whole new set of guilts, much less plausible.
Equally hard to swallow is the arrival of the daughter of his jailed partner. She had been in love with the son Keller lost in the war, but will now marry the son who survived. Her presence triggers the highly charged conclusion.
Miller's attempt to write a play about moral responsibility is undone because he can't just depict Joe Keller; he insists on indicting him.
Granted the jerrybuilt quality of the play, most of the performances have a beautiful intensity, particularly those of Jayne Atkinson and Jamey Sheridan as the young couple in the shadow of their fathers' misdeeds.
Richard Kiley's bland surface makes Joe Keller initially sympathetic. He successfully handles the transformation to a cornered beast, but one suspects that an actor with a darker cast might make the character more powerful. Joyce Ebert overdoes everything as his wife.
Director Arvin Brown has assembled a strong supporting cast. Hugh Landwehr's set is a stunning evocation of genteel, decaying suburbia, but ultimately the play can't generate an emotional response, only fracture it.
Immediately after World War II, American dramatists had a confidence that is today lacking. That confidence is typified by Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," the playwright's first Broadway success. It returned last night at the Golden Theater in a vigorous and richly enjoyable new staging by Arvin Brown's Long Wharf Theater.
Confidence truly is the word - not that Miller's generation were better playwrights than our present crop; indeed, I would be inclined to argue quite the opposite. But they certainly knew what they were doing, and more important, who they were doing it for.
There was no hesitancy about producing boulevard comedies, melodrama or, even worse, a TV sitcom or soap opera, partly because TV was in its infancy.
There was also, as Miller himself would surely insist, a more generally accepted code of ethics, a more rigidly formulated sense of right and wrong, a more generally comprehensible moral climate.
And it was on that code, with that sense and in that climate that Miller wrote his play, and his first audiences accepted it.
The form and structure of the play is classic - Ibsenite, if you like, but in many ways it draws its dramatic inspiration from the ancient Greeks.
The story is rooted in the past of its characters. The tragic hero is Joe Keller, a wealthy manufacturer with a shady wartime past.
His factory produced faulty cylinder heads, and 21 Air Force pilots went to their deaths in the Pacific, effectively murdered by the decision to meet an Army contract at all costs - even knowing that the work was flawed - potentially fatally.
Keller's character is as flawed as his cylinder heads, for he can make no connection between himself and the world that lies outside his own narrow family and personal concerns.
Without any real compunction - although he is a soft-hearted, sentimental man, with a certain compassion - he has lied his way to a shady safety, making his partner, now languishing in jail, the scapegoat for the criminal deception.
Now, all that behind him but still mourning his son, a flyer missing and presumed dead in the Pacific, Keller is preparing his post-war world and the future he sees for his younger surviving son, Chris.
All this information, including his wife's stubborn refusal to accept that the dead son will not, almost miraculously, turn up, is told at the beginning of the play - quite adroitly.
The play slowly, not without a few creaks, gets into gear. The daughter of the imprisoned partner, the onetime fiancee of the elder son, is expected on a first visit to her old town since the tragedy.
The younger brother now wants to make her his wife. The mother is appalled at such a lack of faith. The partner's lawyer-son turns up convinced, for the first time, of his father's innocence.
There are coincidences and unlikelihoods. The dialogue is tensely theatrical rather than naturalistic, the organization of the play, the contrivances, the characters themselves, all have to make up in conviction what they lack in subtlety. Yet the play works.
Certainly, it works very strongly in this wholehearted Long Wharf staging - Richard Kiley as Keller has been brought in since New Haven to give the production Broadway star-power. Arvin Brown's forceful direction leaves no turn unturned, no stone unthrown.
There is one seemingly major miscalculation. Hugh Landwehr's setting - while seedily charming in itself - seems inappropriately downscale for Keller. He is supposed to be making washing machines, but from the glimpse we get of his kitchen, one strongly doubts whether he even owns one.
The performances - typically for a resident theater production - range from the adequate to the terrific. In the latter category comes Jamey Sheridan's grinning portrayal of Chris, Keller's younger son.
Kiley's Keller itself appears very much as Miller envisaged him: a weak, mildly likable man, totally incapable of comprehending the very nature of his sin. It is a beautiful, well-paced performance.
Joyce Ebert's Kate Keller is motherly and capable, but some of the lesser roles disappoint.
"All My Sons" lacks the depth and poetic grandeur of "Death of a Salesman" - it is more comparable to "The Price" - yet all the same, attention must be paid. This is a fine American play in a fine American staging - and a reminder of a Broadway now lost.
In an America rocked by inside traders on Wall Street, ethically blind managers in the space program and shredded documents in the National Security Council, no one can doubt the continued pertinence of ''All My Sons.'' Though four decades old, Arthur Miller's first Broadway success tells a story that really can be found in today's newspapers: The protagonist, a businessman named Joe Keller, stands accused of having covered up his role in manufacturing defective parts that doomed 21 Air Force planes in World War II. If anything, ''All My Sons'' may be too topical for its own theatrical good. Keller's selfish disregard for his responsibilities to society is a sad commonplace now. Even as a 1987 theatergoer admires Mr. Miller for fastening on an eternal issue, it's hard not to ask the weary, equally eternal, question, ''So what else is new?''
What is smart about the play's revival at the Golden is the director's willingness to confront the text from exactly this jaded present-day perspective. Given that the director is Arvin Brown, the canny approach to a problematic Miller work is no surprise. In his excellent 1983 Broadway revival of ''A View From the Bridge,'' Mr. Brown emphasized psychosexual drama over the playwright's unrealized aspirations to Greek tragedy. In ''All My Sons,'' the director similarly favors domestic concerns over the writer's unassailable, yet obvious, polemics against the ''bloody loot'' of the dog-eat-dog business ethic. Mr. Brown wants to give us a paradigmatic Miller drama of middle-class parents and children, a household consumed by guilt and betrayals and unacknowledged grievances, rather than the gloss on Ibsen that the author at his most high-minded strains to achieve.
When the acting is good - as it generally is, with one crucial, damaging exception - the payoff is more absorbing than many may expect from a play often catalogued as a postwar warhorse. This is especially so in the moving later scenes, in which Richard Kiley, as the corrupt Keller, must stand spiritually naked before his once-idealistic, now disillusioned son, Chris (Jamey Sheridan). Maybe the Joe-Chris confrontations do look like warm-ups for the roof-raisers between Willy and Biff in the subsequent ''Death of a Salesman,'' but they still have a raw power of their own. ''I'm his father and he's my son, and if there's something bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head!,'' shouts Mr. Kiley's Keller, a once-pompous Babbitt whose pathetic, last-ditch rationalization of his greed rises like bile from deep within. Not long before, Mr. Sheridan's red-faced Chris has all but incinerated himself with rage and grief, as he belatedly realizes that his father is not the man he worshipfully thought he was, indeed is ''not even an animal.''
It's one of the production's strengths that the play's younger generation comes across as righteous without being priggish. This is true of the impressive Mr. Sheridan, who makes the grown-up Eagle Scout of a son intelligent and sexy, and also of Christopher Curry and Jayne Atkinson, who sensitively flesh out the angry and naive adult children of the partner whom Keller stuck with the blame (and prison sentence) for his crime. Mr. Kiley - an owlish figure these days, with that resonant voice as finely shaded as ever - finds something human in the patriarch as well. ''I had two sons - now I have one,'' says Keller, when tallying the war's toll in his own household. The actor's myopic gaze and only half-mournful delivery of the line reveal the disoriented conscience of a man unable to make the connection between his own loss and the wreckage he cavalierly inflicted on others.
As Harold Clurman once wrote, the real villain of ''All My Sons'' is not the father in any case - or, for that matter, the capitalist ''system'' that produces war profiteers. The fulcrum of the play is instead the mother, Kate Keller, a far more fascinating creation than Linda Loman in ''Salesman'' and a much fuller version of the mothers who bully the tycoon fathers in Mr. Miller's later ''After the Fall'' and ''The American Clock.'' Kate is an unwitting monster who destructively manipulates everyone's guilts, enforces the most conformist social values, and attempts, with intermittent success, to disguise psychotic impulses as physical ailments and familial self-martyrdom.
This matriarch redeems both Clurman's and Mr. Brown's faith in ''All My Sons'' as more than mere agitprop. How one wishes that Joyce Ebert's performance matched Mr. Miller's writing. Instead of the diaphanous, empathic interpretation that might humanize and integrate the woman's many conflicting traits -and integrate the mother into the play - the actress offers each trait in succession, as a series of brash, superficial character-lady turns. By the time Miss Ebert punctuates Kate's revelation of a terrible secret by showily throwing a hand to her mouth, the unexpectedly complex family portrait unearthed by the rest of the company has been severely compromised, if not sabotaged.
Everything else, the negligible secondary roles included, is well done. Hugh Landwehr's design of a small-town house, Bill Walker's Life-magazine-perfect costumes and Ronald Wallace's end-of-summer lighting evoke the embryonic social texture of a newly prosperous and cynical peacetime America built on vacuum cleaners, not armaments. True, Mr. Brown's staging cannot camouflage Mr. Miller's creaky, waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop exposition (supplied by phone, letter and prattling neighbors) or bald symbols (a fallen tree) or melodramatic plot twists. But the director does convince us that there was a playwright, along with the Odets-inspired pamphleteer, at work in this early effort. The real irony left by this revival is not that the Joe Kellers still blight our headlines in 1987 as they did in 1947, but that Mr. Brown's deeper view of ''All My Sons'' argues for an even higher-powered rendition than his own solid production can provide.