Linda Emond, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Andrew Garfield in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe, Broadway.com.
BOTTOM LINE: Literally performed in the shadow of the original, the return of this prescient American play is presented strongly, but largely lacking a fresh take on the classic.
Arthur Miller’s weighty play, Death of a Salesman, can certainly be lauded as one of the most omniscient pieces in the contemporary American theatre canon, and for good reason. Even now, its words twist and change to reflect the contemporary moment in which they are presented, a hallmark of any great theatrical work. But always the difficulty in restaging pieces as boldly lived as Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is finding a new way to allow the dialogue to come to life with each new presentation of the work. Mike Nichols joins the ranks of directors accepting that challenge with his new Broadway revival, now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Husband and father, Willy Loman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), has become known as an American archetype. Exhausted and still waiting for the going to get good, the disheveled Loman arrives home at the beginning of the play, cases in hand, stooping with the weight of his own decline. Loman has spent more than half his life schlepping up and down between client’s offices in New England and his Brooklyn home as a salesman for a New York office. Even after 35 years in the business, his salary’s been cut, leaving him on commission only, and his incidents of near-misses while driving are on the rise, even if his sales aren’t. But it is the return of his once prodigious son, Biff (Andrew Garfield), now a 34-year old man-child, which pushes Willy over the edge. Confronted with his son’s failures, Willy becomes all the more aware of his own -- both as a man, and as a father’s who has passed his own legacy of disappointment on to his progeny. Haunted by his brother Ben’s miraculous ability to find fortune off the land (by finding diamonds in Africa), Willy both literally and figuratively laments his lot as he desperately descends.
Miller’s dialogue and the story itself are as potent today as they were half a century ago. Death of a Salesman beautifully and timelessly displays the tension of the contemporary middle-class life: sandwiched between other middle-income families without an excess of funds or patch of grass, trees and sunlight become both a dreamlike luxury and an overwhelmingly unreasonable nightmare. And especially now, with years of tightened belts and soaring unemployment, the familiar pathetic squeeze the Lomans feel just before making their final mortgage payment is as heartbreaking as it is typical. Furthermore, the added burden of children returned to the nest thanks to their own undeveloped wingspan is the headache of all too many present-day parents. Unmarried but MBA-wielding American sons arrive home left and right, much like Willy at the play’s outset, carrying heavy debts and heavier wasted potential on their deflated shoulders.
Despite the oracle-like quality of the script, however, this 2012 revival fails to find a footing for itself, which would set it apart from the shadow of the play’s strong lineage. Much like the Loman boys squandered potential, thanks to their inability to fulfill their father’s overbearingly optimistic wishes for their future, Nichols seems to have so carefully directed this production of Salesman that he has difficulty finding his own path through the text and story. The play takes place on the original Broadway production’s set, and truly the acting feels as though the cast is making great pains to repeat the steps, paces, and pauses of those who filled the shoes before them. The dialogue, for the most part, feels worn outside the actors, like their late-1940s costumes; the powerful language cannot help but reveal its strength, but the actors seem so conscious of the legacy they’re stepping into that they carefully handle the dialogue as such, like cloisonné teacups in grandmother’s house. Hoffman looks pretty perfect as Willy Lowman in his three-piece suit (though he has a little more aging to do, of course), but even his powerful decline feels a little too delicate and tidy, a little awed by the text.
Though Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a vital and timeless part of America’s theatrical legacy (a mandatory view for all at some point as far as I’m concerned), the importance of renewing a piece each time it is revived cannot be overstated. The ease with which the play’s text aligns itself with the contemporary moment is truly remarkable, but further draws attention the museum-piece staging Nichols has conjured up for this go around.
(Death of a Salesman plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, in an open-ended run. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM; Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; and Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM. Tickets are $46.50-$299.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)