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NEW YORK — It’s rare to hear grown men choke back sobs during a play, but that’s what the emotional nakedness of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s Willy Loman, a man broken by his own hollow faith in the American Dream, elicited from the audience for the 2012 Broadway production of Death of a Salesman.
Accepting the Tony Award for best revival of a play that year, director Mike Nichols talked about the blood spilled on the stage every night by the remarkable ensemble of actors playing the Loman family, which included Hoffman, Andrew Garfield, Linda Emond and Finn Wittrock (all pictured below).
Watching the production, a wrenching sense emerged of people who had been through the rigors of life together, in much the same way America had been battered by the Great Recession. A number of Broadway productions have tapped into the collective hurt inflicted on the country by the 21st century economic crisis. But arguably none has had the visceral gut impact of this trenchant staging of Arthur Miller‘s 1949 masterwork.
Hoffman’s death has justly sparked a wave of grief for a versatile screen talent whose career has been cut tragically short. But his ties to the theater are no less indelible and will be felt most acutely in the New York stage community.
When Hoffman shambled onto the Ethel Barrymore Theatre stage dragging Willy’s sample cases, he was 44, almost two decades younger than the character as written. But he had the stature and gravitas of an actor 20 years his senior. His Willy Loman was deluded yet fearful, blinkered yet ruminative, belligerently proud yet humiliatingly lost. It was a lacerating performance without an ounce of vanity, which exposed the unforgiving cruelty of a society that measures a man’s value by his professional standing.
Hoffman’s Broadway appearances were relatively few, but he chose discerningly, receiving a Tony nomination for each of the three productions in which he starred.
He was a cog in another superlative ensemble in Robert Falls‘ 2003 revival of Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, opposite Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave and Robert Sean Leonard. Hoffman played the self-loathing Jamie Tyrone, simmering with unspoken resentment through much of the harrowing domestic drama and exploding into rage as whiskey eventually washed away his careful self-control.
His Broadway debut, in 2000, was in Matthew Warchus‘ production of Sam Shepard‘s True West, a searing depiction of sibling rivalry boiled down to its primal essence, in which Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated in the roles of two combative brothers.
But Hoffman also had a long and fruitful association with Off Broadway, notably with the Labyrinth Theater Company, where he served as co-artistic director for several seasons, appearing in and directing a number of productions.
An actor-driven troupe with a muscular signature performance style, Labyrinth has also built up a reputation as a nurturing environment for playwrights. Among the regulars is Stephen Adly Guirgis, one of the company’s current artistic directors, whose plays Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Little Flower of East Orange were given dynamic productions under Hoffman’s guiding hand.
The 2005 premiere of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in particular was a blistering study in guilt and redemption staged as a volatile courtroom drama. It featured memorable performances from Eric Bogosian as a Gucci-clad Satan, Sam Rockwell as the humanized sinner of the title, and Hoffman’s fellow artistic director John Ortiz as the betrayed Jesus of Nazareth.
Hoffman also appeared in Labyrinth’s 2007 premiere of Bob Glaudini‘s Jack Goes Boating, later choosing that play as the vehicle for his 2010 screen-directing debut. A statement from the company on Sunday called Hoffman “our beloved friend,” adding, “His contributions to the Labyrinth family as an artist and mentor are immeasurable.”
Not all of Hoffman’s stage risks paid off. A misconceived 2009 Othello by experimental opera director Peter Sellars starred Hoffman as Iago, Ortiz as Othello and a then-unknown Jessica Chastain as Desdemona. The mumblecore-era Shakespeare reinterpretation was widely panned.
Also divisive was an uneven Shakespeare in the Park production of Chekhov’s The Seagull in summer 2001, which assembled one of the starriest theater casts in memory. Appearing opposite Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden and John Goodman, Hoffman played Konstantin, the depressed playwright overshadowed by the spotlight-seeking of his actress mother.
Echoing that family dynamic, the return of Streep to a New York stage after a 20-year absence largely eclipsed pretty much everything else going on. But the role was consistent with those that best displayed Hoffman’s strengths onstage — burdened, introspective men cloaked in melancholia but subject to convulsive displays of anger and emotional violence.
Broadway will dim its lights at 7:45 p.m. EST on Wednesday in memory of Hoffman. For those of us fortunate enough to have seen this brilliant, mercurial actor’s stage work, that solemn occasion will also serve as a reminder of the countless great theater roles he still had left to play.
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