There’s a kind of magic at work in the new revival of Arthur Miller’s American classic Death of a Salesman, that encompasses, yet goes beyond, the sensitivity of Mike Nichols’ direction or the power of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Willy Loman. And it has to do with the decision to recreate Jo Mielziner’s original 1949 Broadway set, and employ Alex North’s original incidental music…and to see it, and see how quickly that magic takes hold, is, almost literally, breathtaking—and especially if you’ve seen Salesman before.
Most of you know the bare outline of the play at least, as it follows the last days of a man who has followed the wrong dreams, and the impact all that has on his family; and if you’ve ever seen it staged, you know that the set mandated is a little bit abstract: it physically represents a cross-section of the Loman house in Brooklyn and various rooms upstairs and downstairs, plus the front yard; but it also must accommodate representations of an office, a waiting room, a restaurant and a hotel room. In all other productions I’ve seen, there has been bigness to the cross-section, or at least the illusion of space, sometimes employing a skeletal representation of structure to evoke black-box-style fluidity.
But Mielziner’s set is cramped. The landing to the kitchen area is tiny, not easy to navigate unless people get out of each other’s way…the kitchen itself, which is the main playing area of the house, forces action downstage (some of this space doubles at other times as the front yard area, but even then it’s cramped). The stairway leading up to his Loman son’s bedroom is built into a slanting narrow corridor, a claustrophobic tunnel. Said bedroom is a little more generous, but by the same token seems small for two grown young men, as what was once a boys’ room might.
And the core of Alex North’s incidental music is carried by a lonely flute in low register. Keeping the flute low seems to take an instrument associated with lightness and constrain it with weights. One might say it represents the very paradox of Willy Loman, a man with dreams he can only desire and never touch.
Now one might argue that in a play that is already (arguably) The Great American Stage Tragedy, all this melancholy and claustrophobia would be a hat on top of a hat, making the play too depressing to bear; but quite the reverse thing happens.
For this is the world that Willy yearns to break out of. What he wants is so much bigger than this, and at his most expansive he seems to be in physical combat with his very house, as if by sheer force of will, he might be able to punch it, punch it, punch it away, but as it stays there, implacable and, for all its austerity, somehow looming over him too, the futility and tragedy become even more poignant, even more painful. And in defeat, the flute carries the sound of a broken soul that refuses to lie down on the mat. It’s quite something.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy fits right in, because though he’s a charismatic actor, it’s not linked to any particular bravura (as with some previous Willys, such as Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott and Brian Dennehy), but rather a very concentrated distillation of ordinariness that reaches in vain for bravura. The casting of his sons is interesting too, because for the first time in my experience, their connection to genuine youth is still palpable. My favorite Biff has always been James Farentino, who played opposite Scott with as powerful a stage persona, making the final confrontation, in the best sense, a true clash of the titans—but at the time he performed it, he was 37 and well established as a TV leading man. He wasn’t the first to be so far at the edge of age-accommodation for the role, and in fact he fit right in with tradition before and after: Arthur Kennedy, John Malkovich, Kevin Anderson. But they’d be out of place in this production, against a Willy portrayed as such a common man. So here we have Andrew Garfield. Who is 28. And likewise surely gifted. But no titan. His Biff is literally an overgrown kid. His voice lacks the gravitas of maturity, his features are boyish, when he’s angry, his voice cracks. He’s about as authentic a Biff as can be. And when he and Hoffman square off, it’s not theatrical fireworks in the sense of virtuosic collision. It’s a simple, graceless, ragged, messy family blowout. And because it’s that intimate and that tortured and that exposed and that raw…it just rocks you.
And it’s symptomatic of how director Nichols has achieved something quite remarkable…a synthesis of new millennium verisimilitude with mid 20th century high symbolism, as represented by that set. Both drawing in the power of the original and pouring it into a vessel of contemporary reference.
The rest of the casting follows suit, in sturdiness of Linda Emond’s Linda, the narcissism of Finn Wittrock’s Happy, the dully bemused stolidity of Bill Camp’s Charley and all the rest. Even the hotel room floozie (Molly Price) is in keeping with the notion of a man whose dreams are delusional; as a dalliance, she’s cheap, crude and not much worth the energy (though Ms. Price giving the role that spin is priceless).
in all, this Death of a Salesman is
about as exhilarating an evening of heartbreak, rueful recognition and soured
Americana as a tragedy-phile might wish to see. And not see. Yet can’t look
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