New York City Theater
"Death of a Salesman"
That tornado hitting Broadway has a name: “Death of a Salesman.” Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, a play that magnificently stands for an entire civilization, is, in this incarnation, so mesmerizing, gutsy and touching that it literally takes your breath away.
Except for some cretin’s cellphone, which rang at just the wrong moment (is there ever a right moment?) at the performance caught, this was about the quietist audience I’ve ever sat with. (No eating, no talking, no texting, no late comers: if you arrive after curtain up, you’re not seated until intermission. Hooray.)
Directed by Mike Nichols with a staggering attention to nuance, the tragedy is acted with concentrated energy, revealing not merely the outer workings of a family going down the tubes, but the inside of their brains. Indeed, the original title, “The Inside of His Head,” has never seemed more apt.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Willy Loman, stares into space, we know he’s thinking of plans he’s making and defeats he’s fearing. Thoughts of dreams deferred push into his brain, much as he tries to ignore them -- thoughts that are driving him round the bend.
Every character, large or small, has such moments, allowing us to fill in spaces, viewing both regrets that were and horrors yet to come. Their eyes betray the disconnect between words and feelings.
If the effect isn’t as weepy as it often is with this play, chalk it up to the projection of not so much a nuclear family that’s falling apart as of individuals with their own agendas, caught by unknowable forces. That trajectory has its own powerful poignancy, as the personal defeats of people incapable of acknowledging each other bring them down, one by one.
This is the tale of a man with the wrong dreams, a salesman “riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” a man who loves his family yet cannot see them for who they are, only what he wants them to be. He treats his wife Linda like an appendage, ignores son Happy and has betrayed other son Biff. Yet Biff can still call his father “a fine, troubled prince, a hard-working, unappreciated prince.”
Like any great work of art, the drama’s meaning changes with each viewing. What once centered on Willy now seems as much about Biff, as searingly acted by rising film personality Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network,” the upcoming “Spider-Man”). Garfield may not physically be what we think of as a shining, golden high school football player but his powerful performance suggests that it was more Biff’s personality than his athletic prowess that made him popular and “well liked.” With his tough but poetic Brooklyn accent, Garfield makes the desperate, unfit, man-child Biff as much the play’s locus as Willy; his fall from grace as tragic.
Nichols wisely sets the production on a replica of Jo Mielziner’s original 1949 cutaway set of the Loman house, a haunting place, beautiful in its near-decrepitude, looming even when scenes occur elsewhere. Alex North’s aching music (from the original production), plus Brian MacDevitt’s lighting and Ann Roth’s costumes are as much characters as the set, transporting us to a bygone world on the lip of Hell.
Linda Emond is a no-nonsense wife, choosing to ignore what Willy has become. Finn Wittrock suggests all the second-son syndromes that make him lash out sexually at what he is denied emotionally. John Glover, Bill Camp, Fran Kranz and the rest of the cast are superb.
Hoffman, the production’s star name, distances himself from insight, making him more victim than hero. From the start, he projects the mien of a lost individual, searching in vain for his soul. Where did it go? Willy is left with questions that shake the foundations of his existence and we, the stunned audience, shaken with sorrow and pity.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 29, 2012