NEW YORK — Richard Dreyfuss is looking for the outrage.
He doesn't see much of it today in the public reaction toward social injustices, scandals and immoralities. But he does find it in the plays of Arthur Miller, particularly "All My Sons." He and Jill Clayburgh head the cast in a production at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Conn., starting Wednesday.
Dreyfuss plays Joe Keller, an affable family man and industrialist in post-World War II Ohio. But his charming veneer cracks when it is revealed he was a war profiteer who made his partner take the fall when it was learned that their faulty engine parts were responsible for the deaths of pilots. The reaction of his family and friends, as well as members of the audience, is a primal scream of anger that resonates today -- especially today, with the constant headlines of cover-ups, ethical lapses and profits at any cost.
"Some people thoughtlessly define Miller as archaic, creaky, even antique-y," Dreyfuss says before a rehearsal in New York recently. "It's the comment of people who haven't read the plays recently. To me, the most antique moment in this play is the outrage. [The characters] have this extraordinary outrage -- which is very clear, very open, without the assumption of argument -- that simply says, 'How dare you?' 'How dast you?' "
Dreyfuss says people just don't write like this anymore. "Forty and 50 years ago, writers knew they were fulfilling a kind of role -- like that of guardians of a certain set of morals, public ethics and questions. Not anymore. How often have we heard in the last few years people walking around like chickens with their heads cut off, looking at events saying, 'Where's the outrage? Where's the outrage? Where's the outrage?' Well, that's the most provocative reason for doing the show -- and the most interesting thing to anticipate."
Though Dreyfuss' career is most evident in his more than 40 films, the actor has been doing much stage work recently. Last year he starred in Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" with "Goodbye Girl" co-star Marsha Mason in London. And the past season saw the actor starring as part of the rotating cast in "The Exonerated," the off-Broadway play against capital punishment, and "Trumbo," about black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo. Dreyfuss will be back in Connecticut later in the year when he plays the Stamford Center for the Arts in a pre-Broadway production of the revival of the comedy "Sly Fox."
At 55, Dreyfuss is heavier, balder and, of course, older than the brash kid, eager hustler and sensitive soul who made an impact in films such as "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "American Graffiti" and "The Goodbye Girl," which earned him an Oscar at 29.
But that wise-guy snap -- a combination of ego and humility and barely contained energy -- remain in later films such as "What About Bob?" "Tin Men" and "Mr. Holland's Opus," which earned him an Oscar nomination. It's just tempered through the eyes of a man who, despite a lifetime of wide-ranging experiences, is still trying to figure things out.
"I was approached in the past few years by people who wanted to do my bio on A&E and Oxygen and the like. I said no, because I don't know the ending yet. I would write a memoir if I could write, but I can't. Did I try? Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I'm one of the most interesting people I know, but I just can't seem to get it out of my head.
"But I think it's probably true of everyone. I think about this a lot, that all of us individually walk around with this universe of truly fascinating stuff inside our heads. Artists are those who say, 'My stuff is so fascinating, I'm going to put it all out there for you to judge.' If I could somehow communicate my inner life to you, you'd be stunned and scared and many other things."
And what would he call his memoir? "Steven, Have They Figured Out Yet What I'm Looking Up at in Awe?" he offers with a giggle. Then he suggests a less whimsical title, hinting at more difficult times: "With One Hand Tied Behind My Back." Then another, that perhaps speaks to him the most: "So Many Beginnings."
"That's my [attention deficit disorder] memoir title," he says, more subdued, and you understand that the guy's not joking.
When asked to explain his disorder, he says, "I have a shower in my apartment, and there's a washer in the shower head, and it prevents the shower from coming out at full force. I have such a washer in my head. I knew it all my life, but later is when I figured it out. I feel my whole life has been an attempt to adjust to it, so that's what I do. I want now to believe in reincarnation so I can come back and do this right."
And who would he want to come back as? "Me -- without the washer."