Death of a Salesman
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 22, 2012
Mike Nichols' new production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is thrilling, insightful, and revelatory. It's an expensive ticket, but it's nonetheless my top recommendation for anyone seeking drama of the highest quality here in NYC. It contains what is likely to be the finest performance on Broadway this season—Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabits the role of Willy Loman with an insight and vigor I've not seen in prior productions. And in Nichols' realization of the play, it provides not only an extraordinarily moving theater experience but one that reminds us why this particular work was long felt by many to be the Great American Play.
The story is probably familiar: Willy Loman is a salesman near the end of his career, but instead of going out in a blaze of glory he seems more likely about to implode. Business has just dried up, and how much of that is because times have changed and how much is because Willy was never the success that he thought he was is pretty much beside the point. His long-suffering wife Linda tallies how much they still owe on the mortgage and this or that appliance while re-lining his suit jacket and darning her stockings. Meanwhile, their two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are apparently on the road to nowhere in their own lives, the former drifting from job to job while nursing a pipe dream about owning a ranch of his own out west, the latter a womanizing "bum" (to use Linda's terminology).
What makes Miller's play great is not the particulars of the story but his exploration of how these people got to where they are. This is a very typical American family that has bought into a very typical American idea—that success comes not from within but from without; that making a nice appearance and having nice stuff and being, as Willy constantly repeats, not just liked but "well-liked" are the ingredients for happiness as well as material comfort. Nichols' production, which uses the same set design that Jo Mielziner provided for the 1949 Broadway premiere and Alex North's original score, grounds the play both in its period (immediately after World War II) and a broader American Middle Class context that, in many ways, is still with us.
And Miller supplies dramatic poetry equal to his important ideas! I'd forgotten that this play contains the archetypal description of a salesman—"He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine"—until I heard it. I hadn't forgotten Willy's brilliant statement of the play's thesis, delivered here by Hoffman so off-handed and admiringly:
...I met a salesman in the Parker House. His name was Dave Singleman. And he was eighty-four years old, and he'd drummed merchandise in thirty-one states. And old Dave, he'd go up to his room, y'understand, put on his green velvet slippers—I'll never forget—and pick up his phone, and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. 'Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? when he died—and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston—when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral.
Hoffman's work as Willy here is galvanizing: he shows us the great man that sons see in their fathers and fathers proudly see in their sons, and the diminished sad man that fathers and sons see when they look, disappointed and uncomprehending, at one another; living together in a body that's letting all the could-have-beens eat it away, careening inexorably toward a tragic end. It's a performance of great warmth and emotion: multitudes of tiny, potent moments of happiness and sadness captured in Hoffman's expressive eyes and face.
Finn Wittrock gives another of the play's outstanding performances as younger son Happy; in this production, as I never had before, I saw how alike father and second son are. Bill Camp as Willy's long-time neighbor Charley and Fran Kranz as Charley's smart and successful son Bernard also do exemplary work. Less successful are John Glover as Ben, the older brother that Willy idolized, and Linda Emond as Linda, both playing mostly the surface of their roles. Andrew Garfield, though 28 years old, doesn't convince us that he's the washed-up 34-year-old Biff, but I suspect his portrayal may well deepen with time.
In addition to Mielziner's set, design elements (Ann Roth's costumes, Brian MacDevitt's lighting, Scott Lehrer's sound) serve the piece beautifully. The show is so intense and engaging that despite a nearly three-hour running time the pacing never lags, not for a second.
I always say that at its best, Broadway is the pinnacle of theatre, and this Death of a Salesman is proof. It's a shattering experience: you come out a little bit different than when you came in. Too many people, like Willy Loman, still chase after wrong American Dreams, and that's the real tragedy that's laid bare in this remarkable production.