Whenever an old warhorse of a play like "Death of a Salesman" is trotted out again onto a Broadway stage, its backers are quick to explain its relevance. It's hard to argue this time.
The still-vibrant, still-powerful story of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman returns to a nation now emerging from a Great Recession, awash with consumerism, disgusted by greed and where audience members are striving pointlessly to be "well liked" on Facebook.
Crisply directed by Mike Nichols and starring a heartbreaking Philip Seymour Hoffman, this "Death of a Salesman," which opened Thursday at the Barrymore Theatre, is now a gloomy 63-year-old mirror – the same age as Loman is in the play – held up to the world to prove that little has changed.
Hoffman is only 44, but he nevertheless sags in his brokenness like a man closer to retirement age, lugging about his sample cases filled with his self-denial and disillusionment. His fraying connection to reality is pronounced in this production, with Hoffman quick to anger and a hard edge emerging from his babbling.
"The woods are burning, boys, you understand?" he tells his sons – the lost Biff, played with pathos by Andrew Garfield, and the attention-seeking Happy, nicely played by Finn Wittrock. "There's a big blaze going on all around."
That fire is, of course, consuming the Loman family as Miller explores the nastiness behind the Norman Rockwell painting of the American Dream in late 1940s Brooklyn. Times are hard. Salaries are low. Bills keep coming. Love can sometimes be overpowering. Mere personality is no longer valid currency.
Willy Loman has reached the end of the line: An aging salesman who roams New England, he thinks the key to success is being liked, but he is more often laughed at behind his back. His sons – especially Biff, the apple of his eye – are a disappointment. He is contemplating suicide. After he dies, he figures, his funeral will be mobbed and that will prove he was worthwhile.
"I am known!" he insists, but seems to know that isn't enough.
His mind escapes to the past – moments with his long-lost godlike brother Ben (a typically moving John Glover), or with his adoring boys before they became men – when there were possibilities. Nichols has staged these as smartly as slightly odd hyper-real moments – the embellished memories of a depressed man looking for the wrong turn that led him here.
The skeletonized set with wood and steel giving way to abstract girders and silhouettes of trees – a recreation of the original Tony Award-winning scenic design by Jo Mielziner – takes a while to get used to but reveals itself as an aid to the plays meaning. Loman is in two worlds, after all, one real and one hazy, loosely connected.
Lighting by Brian MacDevitt is extremely inky, relying heavily on spotlights while the rest of the set remains as dark as depression. Projections of bright leaves thrown against the set at times gives it a jaunty, fall feel for flashbacks.
Garfield as Biff starts out a little too wise-guy-Brooklyn-boy but has locked in by the end and is breathtaking in his sobbing, self-hating commitment. Wittrock's Happy is a pretty good ladies man but looks too shellshocked much of the time.
Hoffman will deservedly get attention for playing one of the most iconic American stage roles with vigor, but this production gets its heart and soul from Loman's wife, played with ferocious love by Linda Emond. She is holding this family together with her nails, watching her husband fall apart, taking his abuse, soaring with his hopes, playing interference between him and her sons, and generally walking on eggshells.
"Why must everybody conquer the world?" she asks her husband, trying to soothe him. At another point she begs her sons to be careful around their dad: "Be loving to him because he's only a little boat looking for a harbor." But she can't stop the rot and hers is an inexorable march to widowhood.
There are several moments of humor – yes, even "Death of a Salesman" does have jokes – and some of Miller's wry observations in the late 1940s may bring a smile of recognition. Loman, for example, is fired by the son of his old boss, a younger man who is too distracted by his fascinating new tape recorder to care much about the pathetic man in front of him – a prescient nod to our fragmented, technophile lives.
In another scene, Willy rages about forced obsolescence that may be all too familiar to anyone forced to keep upgrading their computer operating systems or toasters: "I'm always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it's on its last legs ... They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they're used up."
Loman is all used up, too. Unlike this play, his death will be pointless. The dying salesman had told his brother earlier: "A man can't go out the way he came in, Ben. A man has got to add up to something." Loman has failed in his own assessment, but the play proves Miller has definitely not.
There’s arguably no American drama more searing, unsettling and durable than “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of postwar middle-class life.
Or, for that matter, a character as iconic as the broken Brooklyn dreamer Willy Loman. Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy turned the role into Broadway showcases.
In Mike Nichols’ powerful and emotionally rich revival at the Barrymore, Philip Seymour Hoffman resists playing Willy as larger than life, but to scale. As a result, the play has never felt more like an ensemble drama.
That fits. It’s a story of a desperate family, not just the delusional dad.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (an Oscar winner for “Capote”) portrays Willy with vivid and, mostly, assured and measured strokes. He’s expert at expressing Willy’s soul-crushing sadness. He occasionally overdoes his rage: Louder volume doesn’t mean bigger impact.
As Linda, his quietly long-suffering wife, Linda Emond proves sure and steady and heart-stirring — never more so than when she reads her sons the riot act in the famous “attention must be paid” speech. But listen to how she always says Willy’s name — rolling those l’s together — and it’s clear she loves saying it. And, despite everything, him.
Andrew Garfield, the British-American film actor from “The Social Network” and the upcoming “The Amazing Spider-Man,” makes an impressive New York stage debut as Biff. Besides nailing a Brooklyn accent, he squeezes out every drop of poignancy as the conflicted and lost Loman son.
Finn Wittrock, another Broadway newcomer, completes the Loman family as the studly but stony Happy. With Garfield and Hoffman, he turns a dinner that begins as a celebration but curdles into a deeply affecting scene that hits hard and is impossible to shake.
Lending strong support are Bill Camp as the Lomans’ generous neighbor Charley; Fran Kranz as his son Bernard, who goes from loser to success, and John Glover as Willy’s brother Ben, a talking vision of the American Dream.
Miller’s play, originally called “The Inside of His Head,” unfolds in a stream of current conversations and memories. Nichols’ decision to re-create Jo Mielziner’s ingenious skeletal set is a brilliant one. Scenes bleed cinematically, blurring past and present.
Alex North’s original music, which begins with a mournful flute, adds its own special eloquence.
“Death of a Salesman” has proven prophetic. Over the decades millions of Willy Lomans have looked for a hand from companies and gotten a slap.
As Willy would say: “Isn’t that a remarkable thing.”
Also remarkable is that we never really know what Willy sells — mostly, he tries to hawk himself to businesses, his family, himself. Finally, tragically, nobody’s buying.
An interesting case, that Willy Loman. Cynics would say the title character of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is one of the biggest losers to ever grace the stage — yet actors trip over themselves to play him.
After Lee J. Cobb came George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy. Now it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn to peddle his wares. Except maybe his timing’s off.
Nobody’s disputing that the newest Hoffman is an expert craftsman — he’s got the stage chops and the Oscar (for “Capote”) to prove it. But as the Magic 8-Ball would say when asked about his Willy: Reply hazy, try again. Like, 10 years from now.
Indeed, Hoffman faces a big problem in that he’s 44 to Willy’s 60. It’s hard to buy him not only as a man nearing retirement age, but as the father of two grown sons. Maybe that’s why director Mike Nichols cast 28-year-old Andrew Garfield (of “The Social Network” and the upcoming “Spider-Man” reboot) as Willy’s older son, Biff, who’s 34.
A bigger issue than birth certificates is that these two don’t seem to belong to the same family, let alone the same show.
Garfield plays Biff as a twitchy, James Dean-type brooding rebel — his hair does half of the acting. Meanwhile, the lumbering Hoffman keeps things closer to the vest. He’s at his finest when he’s most subtle, as when Willy’s humiliated by his much younger boss, Howard Wagner (Remy Auberjonois), who belittles and then fires him.
These are tantalizing snippets of the show-that-could-have-been, especially since, despite its central miscasting, the production is quite watchable.
A big reason is the power of the play itself. In addition to his insights about screwy family dynamics, Miller’s message about misguided dreams of success seems especially on target today.
And though Nichols is overrated as a director — those unfortunate enough to see his leaden “The Seagull,” with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, will confirm that his biggest talent is assembling starry casts — he’s made some smart decisions here.
One is to re-use Alex North’s evocative music and Jo Mielziner’s haunting set from the original 1949 production. The latter — a skeletal version of a house supplemented by beautiful projections and lighting — illustrates how scenic design can inspire staging.
Another of Nichols’ right moves is casting Linda Emond as Willy’s devoted, long-suffering wife, Linda. She finds the full range of shades in that character, and the scene in which she tells her sons that “attention must be paid” becomes an aria of operatic intensity.
The supporting cast aptly props up the leads. John Glover plays Willy’s brother Ben — an explorer who made it big — as an eccentric figment of Willy’s imagination. Molly Price makes a big impression in the small role of Willy’s mistress, and Bill Camp is a wonderful Charley, the Lomans’ mousy, well-meaning neighbor.
A versatile, daring actor with deceptively plain looks, Camp actually could be a fantastic Willy Loman. Too bad his name doesn’t sell tickets the way Hoffman’s does — and the audience gets the wrong end of the bargain.
The curtain rises, and the floodgates open. How could it be otherwise? Because suddenly it’s all there before you: that set, that music and, above all, that immortal silhouette — the shadowed figure of a stooped man with sample cases, heavy enough to contain a lifetime’s disappointments.
Any passionate student of American theater is sure to get the shivers in the opening moments of Mike Nichols’s revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which opened on Thursday night at the Barrymore Theater. Mr. Nichols — the enduringly fertile, award-laden director of stage and screen — had seen “Death of a Salesman” as a teenager some 60 years ago.
In an inspired choice he decided that for this revival, which stars a deeply thoughtful and uncomfortably cast Philip Seymour Hoffman, he would recreate the original visual and aural landscape devised by the set designer Jo Mielziner and the composer Alex North. So what you’re seeing and hearing at this production’s beginning is much what audiences at the Morosco Theater must have experienced in 1949. It’s a beautiful, lyrical, ghostly vision — appropriate to a play in which an idealized past haunts an unforgiving present. I thank Mr. Nichols for vouchsafing us that glimpse of a watershed opening night in American drama, an uncommon gift from one theater lover to many others.
Yet the tears that brimmed in my eyes in those initial wordless moments receded almost as soon as the first dialogue was spoken. And at the production’s end I found myself identifying, in a way I never had before, with the woman kneeling by a grave who says, “Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry.”
Mr. Nichols has created an immaculate monument to a great American play. It is scrupulous in its attention to all the surface details that define time, place and mood. (Ann Roth’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting feel utterly of a piece with Mielziner and North’s original contributions.) And as staged and paced it is perhaps the most lucid “Salesman” I’ve ever seen.
As the story of the last, deluded days of Willy Loman (Mr. Hoffman) is spun out, Miller’s patterns of imagery fit into place with clean, audible clicks. Lines of thematic import seem to be chiseled into marble before our eyes. You admire every detail of construction and leave the Barrymore feeling that you have learned something of worth, dutifully noting the parallels between Miller’s portrait of failed American dreams and our own disenchanted times. It’s all rather like visiting an important national landmark.
Such emotional distance sprang, for me at least, from a feeling of disconnection between the leading actors (all, I would argue, miscast) and their characters. The three names above the title for this production all belong to people whose work I have greatly admired: Mr. Hoffman, as Willy, the Brooklyn salesman; Linda Emond as Linda, his protective wife; and Andrew Garfield as Biff, their 34-year-old son, an athletic hero in high school who has never found his place in life.
Mr. Hoffman, Ms. Emond and Mr. Garfield all bring exacting intelligence and intensity to their performances. They make thought visible, but it’s the thought of actors making choices rather than of characters living in the moment. Their reading of certain lines makes you hear classic dialogue anew but with intellectual annotations. It’s as if they were docents showing us through Loman House, now listed on the Literary Register of Historic Places.
That Mr. Hoffman is one of the finest actors of his generation is beyond dispute. His screen portraits, whether in starring roles (like his Oscar-winning turn in “Capote”) or supporting ones (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Boogie Nights”), are among the most memorable of recent decades. Though he was brilliant in the 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” his stage work has been more variable.
Certainly his performance here is more fully sustained than those in “The Seagull” (for Mr. Nichols) and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But as a complete flesh-and-blood being, this Willy seems to emerge only fitfully. His voice pitched sonorous and low, his face a moonlike mask of unhappiness, he registers in the opening scenes as an abstract (as well as abstracted) Willy, a ghost who roams through his own life. (And yes, at 44, Mr. Hoffman never seems a credible 62.)
Mind you, there are instances of piercing emotional conviction throughout, moments you want to file and rerun in memory. Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism. (His memory scenes with his self-made brother, played by John Glover, are superb.) What he doesn’t give us is the illusion of the younger Willy’s certainty, of the belief in false gods.
For “Salesman” to work as tragedy (for which it does qualify), there has to be a touch of the titan in Willy, of the hope-inflated man that his sons once worshiped, so we feel an ache of loss when all the air goes out of him. That was what Brian Dennehy offered (some felt to excess) in Robert Falls’s marvelous 1999 production. Mr. Hoffman’s Willy is preshrunk.
Ms. Emond’s Linda, on the other hand, comes across not as the usual devoted doormat but as a big, brimming life force. This is not a woman who has been worn down by cares; she’s a vigilant, fire-breathing watchdog of her husband’s ego. And when she erupts into anger with her grown sons, it’s as if that speech (the much-quoted one in which she says, “Attention must be paid”) had been soapbox-ready for ages.
Though Mr. Garfield (“The Social Network”) brings searing heat to Biff’s Oedipal confrontations with his father, he is hard to credit as a golden, fading American dream incarnate, a natural man of the earth who belongs in the great outdoors. (He’s more like the weedy, tormented James Dean of “Rebel Without a Cause.”) And when he, Ms. Emond and Mr. Hoffman assemble into family tableaus, it’s as if you are watching characters digitally woven together from different movies.
Two performances stand out, luminous and palpable, for their authenticity. As Happy, the younger son forever in pursuit of Dad’s affection, Finn Wittrock provides a funny, poignant and ripely detailed study in virile vanity as a defense system. Bill Camp, as Charley, Willy’s wisecracking next-door neighbor, wears on his face an entire lifetime of philosophical compromises, small victories and protective cynicism. And he speaks so deeply from character that he makes even a line like “Nobody dast blame this man” sound as natural as “hello.”
At the end of this “Salesman” I felt that I understood Willy and Linda and Biff, and was grateful for the insights that the actors playing them had offered. But I felt I knew Happy and Charley, that I might run into them on the street after the show. I also felt for them. The gap between those two sets of reactions explains why “Salesman,” now and forever a great play, never quite achieves greatness on the stage this time around.
Let's get this out of the way at the top. Philip Seymour Hoffman is too young and soft to be the standard-issue iconic Willy Loman chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of American drama. Andrew Garfield seems too delicate and sensitive to be the Biff we know as the curdled former high-school quarterback and big Willy's golden-boy son.
And none of that matters a bit in Mike Nichols' revival of "Death of a Salesman," a wrenching, powerfully inhabited production that honors Arthur Miller's 1949 masterwork -- complete with original sets and music -- while finding new shades of humanity all its own.
For all his heft, Hoffman's indelible Willy has a lightness that was unimaginable in Dustin Hoffman's small, studied portrayal on Broadway in 1984 or Brian Dennehy's man-mountain disintegration in 1999.
This Willy still drags his weary self and his sample cases back to the Brooklyn family home with all the weight of a broken American dream, so defeated he hardly musters the effort to move his jaw when he talks. But as Willy travels back and forth in time through the vast labyrinth of his crumbling mind, we see how a droll sense of humor, more than just phony hard sell, clinched the sales in the good years on the road.
Miller's tragedy still challenges our values with rare compassion, indicting a nation of empty materialism and the loss of respect for simple work. But Willy is not just some good guy the system squashed. He's also a hypocrite, a cheat, a climber as desperate to be "well liked" as appreciated.
Nichols shapes the deep love -- more, the real passion -- between Willy and his loyal wife, Linda, played with a majestic lack of pretense by the remarkable Linda Emond. Garfield, the British stage actor on the brink of mass fandom in the upcoming "Spider-Man" movie, lasers impressively into Biff's helplessness instead of the character's more familiar dead-soul danger. Finn Wittrock, who physically fits better in this family, has layers of bluff swagger as Happy, the skirt-chasing disillusioned younger brother.
As Jo Mielziner's 1949 designs envisioned the Loman house, this is a telling little world, cramped, with walls too flimsy for privacy, which opens back to better days with little more than projections of amber leaves. And the play, 63 years after it changed Miller's life and the theater, still holds the stage with the certainty of tires on tough cement.
The American exceptionalism under scrutiny in Death of a Salesman is very different from the kind you've heard about in political speeches lately.
Willy Loman's saga shows us how the sense of boundless opportunity and mobility that empowers great success stories can prove crushing for those less equipped to thrive.
That bitter truth has never been more relevant, and in Mike Nichols' magnificent new revival of Salesman (* * * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, it retains all its sting.
But the veteran director and his flawless cast also get at something more universal and essential in Arthur Miller's play. As much as Salesman is a specific and enduring social critique, it's a story about family — about the ties that bind (and blind) husbands and wives, parents and children, and the infinite ways in which they're challenged.
Willy's relationship with his elder son is a particularly heartbreaking love story. We meet 34-year-old Biff, a former high school football star, when he visits his parents in Brooklyn after years of drifting and estrangement. As Willy's professional and psychological decline progresses, his flashbacks reveal the mutual adoration underlying the anger and hurt that he and Biff now fuel in each other.
However deep that hurt, this father is most alive when interacting with his firstborn, a fact that leading man Philip Seymour Hoffman makes achingly clear. Hoffman's Willy is a broken bull of a man, still capable of gale-force fury and withering wit — predictably, Nichols and company mine the dry humor in Miller's tragedy — but unmistakably defeated. Yet Biff, played by Andrew Garfield in a remarkable Broadway debut, can still put a twinkle in his pop's eye — and fire his already dangerous delusions.
Garfield vividly traces Biff's evolution from a confident, charismatic teenager to a man crippled by his father's expectations and mistakes. The U.K.-bred actor's body language, spry and vigorous in youthful scenes, slackens; even his canny New York accent sharpens, as a local's might, in excitement or under duress.
Linda Emond plays Willy's long-suffering wife, Linda, with exquisite grace, reaffirming her position at the play's moral center. Conversely, Finn Wittrock nails the upbeat spinelessness of the Lomans' younger son, Happy, whose second-fiddle status is a source of savvy comic relief.
A dynamic John Glover is ideally cast as Ben, the late brother whose self-assurance literally haunts Willy, while Bill Camp lends unsentimental poignance as the Lomans' sympathetic neighbor, Charley. All the performances are at once authentic and timeless, much like Jo Mielziner's abstract set design and Alex North's haunting incidental music, both restored from 1949's original staging.
In short, this is both a play and a production for the ages, and not to be missed.
Attention simply must be paid to a 65-year-old play that can keep a Broadway audience spellbound for almost three hours. It's been 13 years since Arthur Miller's 1949 masterwork was seen on the Rialto, so Gotham was primed for this revival, masterfully helmed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Miller's all-American fall guy, Willy Loman. While "Death of a Salesman" remains the definitive fathers-and-sons drama, its social themes are universal and painfully timely, especially in this powerful, compassionate take. So can we just call this the greatest American play ever written and be done with it?
Willy Loman (Hoffman, a superb actor going for the gold) craves exactly the kind of respect that Nichols shows here for the playwright and his original creative collaborators. Jo Mielziner's iconic set of the Loman home -- the skeletal outline of a once-solid domestic castle being crushed by the giant apartment buildings looming over it -- has been meticulously replicated by Brian Webb. Mielziner's original lighting scheme, a subtle guide through the shifting timeframes of Willy's mental journey, is tactfully referenced in Brian MacDevitt's intricate design. And wonder of wonders, Alex North's original music returns to haunt us with its sorrowful flutes and cello.
Nichol's unequivocal admiration for Elia Kazan's legendary directorial contributions to the play's original production hasn't inhibited him from advancing his own views on the material. Simply put, Willy is his hero -- a weak, foolish, deeply flawed man, but still his hero -- and Nichols understands and indeed loves him enough to forgive him his many sins.
Willy is already a broken man when Hoffman comes onstage, dragging the heavy sample cases for a sales trip to New England that his dangerously wandering mind forced him to abort. Hoffman has our sympathies from that first entrance, the stunned look on his face an eloquent articulation of Willy's shame and fear. As earnestly as he delivers Willy's deluded notions that a man's worth is defined by physical appearance and personal popularity, thesp is never less than kind to this Everyman.
"Be nice to him," Linda Loman (Linda Emond) begs her sons. "Be sweet." The boys don't listen, but Hoffman does.
Emond is also unafraid to be kind to Willy, even during those fits of fury that he unleashes at his wife, his sons, his boss, and his only friend when he realizes the world he knew has changed and he's become redundant. Linda's quiet intelligence is well served by Emond, who shows great heart in delivering Miller's last lament for the demoralized man who believed the lies he was told and obeyed the crooked rules he was taught, and who blamed himself for society's betrayal of him.
Willy's tragedy is all the greater -- and the play all the more momentous -- because he passed on his distorted values to his two sons, believing he was giving them a father's gift. His strapping younger son, Happy (a total dimwit, but extremely likable in Finn Wittrock's appealing perf), bought into his father's fantasies and is completely lost.
There is some hope, though, for Willy's older son, Biff (Andrew Garfield), whose second-act epiphany remains one of the great moments in American theater. Even more than his father and brother, Biff is a natural athlete, a high-school football hero who in his youth embodied all the physical beauty and personal charm that Willy equates with success.
It's a bit of a mystery why Nichols chose to cast the lithe and slender Garfield in a role that seems to call for more brute strength than athletic grace. The thesp is far better suited to his upcoming movie role as the new Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man," and the physical incongruity is disconcerting enough to put him at a disadvantage initially. But by the end of the first act, the actor is holding his own, and when Biff finally spurns his father's false values and asserts his own ideals, Garfield claims the moment and scores big-time.
Miller may have thought he was writing about a specific moment in American history when we admired ruthless entrepreneurs and heartless millionaires and snake oil salesmen and pretty people who felt entitled to their heart's desires -- to the point of sacrificing our own honor to emulate them. But in this revival, the moment he was writing about seems to be now.