Death of a Salesman: Theater Review

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Death of a Salesman - P 2012
Brigitte Lacombe

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Death of a Salesman - P 2012

Mike Nichols' psychologically resonant production of this American classic is sure to rank high among the major theatrical events of the season.  

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond and Andrew Garfield star in Mike Nichols' powerful Broadway revival of the 1949 Arthur Miller drama about the tragedy of the common man.

NEW YORK – One of the fundamental achievements of Mike Nichols’ searing Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman is that it shows precisely why this watershed American drama has never been fully translated into a great film. Arthur Miller’s masterful 1949 play is a work of such heightened theatricality, its language both raw and lyrical, that its characters need to live and breathe in our direct presence, allowing us immediate access to their crushing false hopes, their pain and frustration.

Impeccably cast down to the smallest roles, with an ensemble led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond and Andrew Garfield, this emotionally wrenching production evokes the unmistakable atmosphere and attitudes of mid-century America while also putting down trenchant roots in today’s world.

My previous encounters with the play were in major revivals starring Dustin Hoffman (1984) and Brian Dennehy (1999) in the central role of Willy Loman. Not to take anything away from those estimable performances, but I had never before experienced the overwhelming impact of the drama to this degree, nor appreciated the extent to which Miller’s observations are culturally specific while at the same time universal and prophetic.

That undoubtedly has much to do with re-approaching the play as an older audience member, but also with the production’s timing. With the global economy still on shaky ground, it’s impossible to look at the careworn Lomans without thinking of the countless lower-middle-class families grappling with similar realities. And as so many professional fields are bitten by premature career expiration dates, Willy’s obsolescence carries an added sting.

What makes Nichols’ production so incisive is the restrained yet firm hand with which he guides us to mull over Miller’s stark reflections on the ways in which a man’s worth is measured. This is not just a play about the hollowness of the American Dream, but about the corrosive weight of a culture that pushes us to define ourselves through ambition, success, appearance and wealth. Willy’s tragedy is his stubborn self-delusion – shared and supported by everyone in his family except his son Biff – of having the necessary qualities to flourish in the world of commerce. His sorrow, when faced with the smallness of his existence, is shattering. Even more so is his growing belief that his value to his family has been reduced to that of a life-insurance policy.

While Hoffman, at 44, is seven years older than Lee J. Cobb when he originated the role, there was concern when this revival was announced that the actor was too young to play 63-year-old Willy. But from the moment he shuffles onto the stage carrying his sample cases, it’s clear that this is a fully inhabited characterization. Hoffman is as persuasive playing an aging man plagued by diminishing lucidity as he is in the frequent flashbacks to 15 years earlier that unfold in his burdened mind.

Given the absence of transitional indicators in the writing, it’s important that the interweaving of the late 1940s action with the past be rendered fluidly. Tipping his hat to Elia Kazan, whose landmark productions of Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire Nichols has acknowledged as formative influences, the director incorporates original design elements to tremendous effect. These help to make the time shifts seamless and to give this revival the definitive feel of a classic staging.

While Alex North’s melancholy original score helps shape the play’s mood and flow, the most vital of the vintage elements is Jo Mielziner’s arresting set design. A skeletal abstraction of the Lomans’ Brooklyn home, it looms like a ghost behind every scene. Mielziner’s lighting for the 1949 premiere has been skillfully adapted by Brian MacDevitt to conjure the house in the early 1930s, when it was surrounded by air and light and leafy trees, and in the late-‘40s of the main action, when it’s boxed in and strangled by surrounding apartment blocks, on ground no longer fit to grow anything.

In an era when theater design for drama tends mainly toward either literal naturalism or more austere stylization, this display of how bold stagecraft can provide thematic emphasis is breathtaking. The play’s motif of life lived on installment plans – with too little time to enjoy its acquisitions once the payments are made – echoes loud and clear in the Lomans’ shell of a house, with its eerily transparent walls.

But at its wounded heart Salesman is a play about fathers and sons. Willy refuses to see that Biff (Garfield) will never be the pride and joy of his dreams, let alone the magnificent conquering hero of the business world. That doleful truth is conveyed by Hoffman with an obstinate blindness both maddening and distressing. He makes Willy a lost, fearful man but also a volatile one, brutally shouting down anyone who gets in the way of his delusions. It’s a titanic role that will be a career milestone for Hoffman.

Garfield might perhaps seem a tad too untarnished to play a guy who has been kicking around out West, in and out of legal scrapes. But he powerfully conveys Biff’s squirming discomfort at being back in the city, nudged by his family toward a life he knows is not for him. An athletic young man meant to be working with his hands outdoors, not in an office or on a shop floor, he knows this is also Willy’s mistake. The lacerating ambivalence of his feelings toward his father is amplified as the drama progresses. And the emotional climax in which Biff finally confronts Willy with his self-assessment is a gut punch that sparked audible sobs throughout the theater.

Given the imminent promotional demands that will come with his title role in this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Garfield deserves plaudits for tackling and acing this challenging role, smartly demonstrating his impressive dramatic range before slipping into superhero mode.

There’s equally outstanding work from the family’s remaining members. Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda often becomes a platform for theatrical arias detailing her fierce loyalty and compassion for her husband. Emond’s handle on the role is more measured but no less affecting, Linda’s fatigue, worry and conflicted emotions etched deep into her lived-in performance. More unexpected are the dimensions brought by Finn Wittrock in a terrific Broadway debut as Biff’s brother Happy, a “philandering bum” who sees Willy’s failure for what it is yet continues to subscribe to the dream.

John Glover, Bill Camp, Fran Kranz and Remy Auberjonois find rich shadings in smaller but significant roles, while Molly Price, as Willy’s Boston floozy, brings a wonderfully daffy vulgarity that suggests a reject from the Mad Men secretarial pool.

However, as good as the actors are – and it’s hard to imagine a sharper, more unified ensemble – this is Nichols’ triumph. Every choice feels right, and every note of Miller’s play sounds clear as a bell, to the point where every audience member, irrespective of their background, will likely see something of themselves, their fathers, their families and their world.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York (runs through June 2)

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Fran Kranz, Bill Camp, John Glover, Remy Auberjonois, Glenn Fleshler, Stephanie Janssen, Brad Koed, Kathleen McNenny, Elizabeth Morton, Molly Price

Director: Mike Nichols

Playwright: Arthur Miller

Set designer: Jo Mielziner

Costume designer: Ann Roth

Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt

Music: Alex North

Sound designer: Scott Lehrer

Presented by Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Jon B. Platt, Columbia Pictures, Jean Doumanian, Merritt Forrest Baer, Roger Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman Productions, Ruth Hendel, Carl Molenberg, Scott & Brian Zeilinger, Eli Bush