Death of a Salesman

“A small man can be just as exhausted as a great one,” Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman. This statement is all too true in today’s world, where two jobs per family, or even per person, seem to be required to stay out of debt. Willy Loman, the titular character in Miller’s famed tribute to the Everyman, is certainly exhausted, and watching this revival, currently in performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theater and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy, is exhausting. But it is a deeply rich and rewarding exhaustion that one is proud to have achieved.

It is clear from the moment he shuffles onstage, his shoulders slumped as if weighted with an invisible burden, that Willy is tired. As his wife and two sons are woken by his unexpected late-night arrival home, their own weariness is apparent as well. The reason for their fatigue is explained as Death of a Salesman follows Willy through the last few days of his life while he hovers on the break of insanity and his family makes a desperate attempt to bring him back to reality.

First staged in 1949, Death of a Salesman is still all too applicable to current society. Directed by Mike Nichols and bracingly acted by a talented cast, what is widely considered one of Miller’s finest plays has been given an achingly poignant revival that is frighteningly relevant more than six decades after its first production. (One particularly amusing moment takes place when, listening to Willy expound on the values of being well-liked, someone asks him, “Why must everyone like you? Who liked J. P. Morgan?”)

Death of a Salesman is a sorrowful tribute to the everyday man who is struggling to get by. Sixty-two years old and having recently lost his salary, Willy no longer believes in the philosophy that guided him his entire life – “Be liked and you will never want.” His two adult sons are equally as lost; the elder Biff has no career path at the age of 34, and the younger Happy is a womanizer with little ambition. As Willy hover on the verge of insanity and his sons attempt to reel him in, his long-suffering wife Linda waits patiently at home.

Successfully portraying this tightly-knit family requires an ensemble of believable actors and Nichols has assembled just that. As Willy, Hoffman gives a heartfelt, heart-breaking performance. Much has been said of the actor being almost 20 years younger than his character but I never once considered his age when watching him onstage. If anything, Hoffman’s performance benefits from his youth, because Willy must possess some naivete for his optimism to be believable. His earnest, stubborn conviction that if he is well-liked, everything will be ok, is naive. And while it does not serve his character’s story, it does serve the actor playing the character. Slumped, slouched and staring straight ahead, Hoffman speaks many of Willy’s lines in an almost deadpan, monotone voice, giving even more power to Miller’s words. When he gives away a large amount of cash and says matter-of-factly, “Keep it. I don’t need it anymore,” audible gasps were heard in the audience. But when he does erupt with rage at the unfairness of his life, his anger is believable. And frightening.

In his Broadway debut, film star Andrew Garfield plays Biff, Willy’s older, prodigal son. The choice of the slender, delicate-faced Garfield to play the former football star raised many eyebrows. While Garfield may not possess the hulking physical presence of John Malkovich, who was Biff in a performance filmed for television, he is a strong presence onstage and holds his own opposite Hoffman. Granted, he is more believable as the father-worshiping 17-year-old in the flashback scenes than as 34-year old embittered man, but the sensitivity he embodies offers a new insight into Biff and why he is so lost.

As Biff’s younger, womanizing brother, Finn Wittrock delivers a solidly assured performance as Happy, offering a connection between the son longing for his father’s recognition and approval and the womanizing man who is unable to commit to a relationship.

The family is housed in Jo Mielziner’s set, which is reproduction of the original 1949 production, featuring the bare outlines of a home, with a claustrophobic interior that houses too much denial and too little privacy. It easily switches to be an office or a front yard.

Equally assured and compelling is Linda Edmond as the Loman matriarch, also named Linda. Edmond, who was wonderful in last season’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, gives Linda a quiet confidence and strength, providing insight into the woman who remains so loyal to her husband despite his physical and mental absences. While witnessing Willy’s treatment of her, one wonders if her commitment to him is admirable or mistaken. Edmond never appears dejected or downtrodden. Instead, she appears to be forcefully and fully alive, and when she asserts that “attention must be paid” to Willy, I sat up a bit straighter in my chair, just in case she was looking at me. Her famous graveside speech at the end of the play was a bit too muted for the ending of such an emotional play, but at the same time one can see why Linda wasn’t able to cry.

The supporting cast is equally strong, with Bill Camp as the next-door-neighbor Charley whose kind practicality serves as a foil to Willy’s determined dreaming, and Fran Kranz as the overlooked teenage academic who tutored Biff. He is even more effective when he emerges as a successful, quietly self-assured young man. Molly Price hams it up as Willy’s on-the-road paramour and John Glover is mysterious and elusive as Ben, Willy’s long-departed brother.

The themes of Death of a Salesman are plentiful and enough to pack a semester’s thesis paper. The pursuit of the American dream, and the question of if that dream is attainable, hovers in every scene and almost every sentence Willy utters. Parents wishing for a better life for their children, and children fearing they will repeat the same mistakes as their parents, are all too common. Watching Biff and Willy struggle to communicate, neither of them capable of having an honest conversation, one sympathizes with both. Biff’s second-act speech, when he breaks down in his father’s arms and professes the truth about himself is cathartic to witness.

This production successfully portrays the aching resonance of a family longing for the past while hoping for a better tomorrow, beginning almost every sentence with, “If only…” or “Someday…” All through his journey, Willy has been seeking gratification. And while he does not find it, the audience does receive gratification from this rich, exhausting and deeply rewarding play.

One Response to Death of a Salesman

  1. Preston Smith says:

    I loved your review and am pleased to read a new, fresh voice who appreciates American classic theater. Just a factual point: the John Malkovich performance in the Dustin Hoffman-as-Willy production was from the Broadway revival which was eventually filmed for TV (not, as might be mistaken from your review, made for TV). Keep those insightful reviews coming.