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A CurtainUp Review
Death of a Salesman
By Elyse Sommer
Watching this Willy's "way out in the blue ride on a smile and a shoeshine" turn into "an earthquake" is as enduringly shattering as any Greek tragedy. While Willy Loman has become as familiar a characters as Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear he is, unlike the Bard's doomed anti-heros, the contemporary theater's unforgettable common man to whom audiences can immediately relate.
If you count the film version, I've visited with Willy and his family enough times to lose count. As I noted at the time of the last Broadway revival in 1999, Willy has become part of my lexicon as an every day allusion for a self-deluded boaster and striver. Its melodramatic excesses notwithstanding, Death of a Salesman not only remains one of the most enduring plays in my theatrical memory book, but each production brings something fresh and different. The current revival does so, and then some.
Philip Seymour Hoffman may be almost twenty years younger than Willy, but from the moment he shuffles on stage — shoulders stopped, his sample cases weighing him down— you stop looking for wrinkles and crow's feet. All you see is the exhausted dreamer at the end of his rope and, in flashback, the ethically flawed, hot-tempered and given to shouting bully.
Hoffman is fascinating to watch as he disappears into this metaphorically named Lo(w)man. But while Hoffman will no doubt collect a fistful of best acting awards, the actors playing his immediate family also give richly satisfying, intelligent performances. The actors playing smaller parts also make large contributions, especially Bill Camp as the Loman's neighbor Charley.
The performances and Nichols' staging made me feel as if I was seeing this play for the first time. I could almost lip synch along with Linda's "Attention must be paid," her plea to her sons to be loving to their father "because he's only a little boat looking for a harbor," with Willy when he pleads for his job with "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit!" . . .and with Biff's agonized "Will you let me go, for Christís sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" Yet, coming from Emond and Hoffman, and Andrew Garfield (in an impressive Broadway debut) all these words not only continue to demand attention but struck deeper and more devastatingly into my gut than ever.
Director Mike Nichols' decision to give audiences too young to have seen the 1949 premiere a chance to see it with Jo Mielziner's evocative semi-abstract set design and Alex North's spellbindingly sad incidental music, makes everyone at the Ethel Barrymore Theater fully aware of why this was such a ground breaking play: A classic with immune to obsolescence themes and fully realized human beings rather than fictional characters (Willy was based on Arthur Miller's uncle), presented with a stunning blend of realism and abstraction.
While there have been many interesting and powerful plays since this one put Miller in the forefront of contemporary dramatists, neither the playwrights who followed in his footsteps, or even Miller in his later years, ever quite matched the gut-wrenching power and originality of Death of a Salesman. And you'll have to look far to find the lyricism that has made the by now overly familiar lines resonate no matter how many times one hears them. Few contemporary plays have as many beautiful, memorably meaningful lines for actors to deliver with their own emotional spin.
As for the relevance that producers always trot out when reviving a drama form another era, Death of a Salesman certainly isn't lacking. Though Miller set his story within the historical context of a time when traveling salesmen, who once permeated the American landscape, became a dying breed. However, Willy's finding himself a stranger in his once familiar territory and being downsized from salary plus commission to trickle-down commissions and no job at all, has become an increasing mirror image for people in all phases of the American work force. As Willy's kind of salesman was already in the past in the late 1940s, the same has become frighteningly true for all manner of jobs and the people running the enterprises
Fortunately there's nothing obsolete about Salesman. . . as directed and staged by Mike Nichols. Even at an unfashionable two and three quarter hours, the Loman family's trajectory doesn't feel too long. the audience's was unusually silent and attentive until the end when they burst into thundering applauseere were plenty of damp eyes when Linda tells her fallen dreamer "I made the last payment on the house today. . . and there'll be nobody home."
For more about Arthur Miller and links to other plays by him we've reviewed, see Curtainup's Arthur Miller Backgrounder.
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