Last night’s Broadway opening of “Death of a Salesman” marked the 50th anniversary of its premiere in 1949. And this production by Chicago’s Goodman Theater certainly honors one of the great moments in the history of American theater.
But this is much more than a pious monument. It is a towering memorial, not to Arthur Miller or to Broadway history, but to the tragedy of ordinary American lives. It pays Miller the ultimate compliment of treating his great classic as a new play. All the urgency, all the anguish, all the terror that must have come across to the audience that night in 1949 strike us full force again.
In the course of the play, the central character, Willy Loman, is referred to as "a small man." But we can't take that too literally. For Willy is small only in the sense that, to people who don't know him, he doesn't matter. Within his own family, he looms as large as any epic hero.
The most predictable thing about Brian Dennehy, who plays him here, is how big he is on stage. The least predictable is how brilliantly he uses his bulk, how he turns it from a physical fact into a poetic truth. He forces us to feel that the fate of a little man is a very big deal.
Dennehy's Willy is a tragic hero on a Shakespearean scale. He seems almost literally to be carrying the world on his back. Every time he moves, we can almost feel the pressure of collapsed dreams on his shoulders.
Sometimes, Dennehy's craggy, Mount Rushmore face seems to shudder and crumble. Often, his hand goes involuntarily to his mouth, as if he is trying to catch his own words before they tumble out and spin him more deeply into trouble.
And at the climax of the play, when Willy is confronted by his son Biff (the powerful Kevin Anderson), Dennehy allows himself to be hauled around like a kid's teddy bear. His huge bulk has become almost weightless.
Robert Falls' production would be great for Dennehy alone, but it also has, in the midst of a splendid cast, an equally searing performance from Elizabeth Franz as Willy's wife, Linda.
Linda can be a difficult role. Her unconditional love for a man who betrays her and shouts at her can make her seem merely passive.
Yet no one could be less passive than Franz. She does what only the very best actors can do. She makes her watchfulness into a frantic activity. The way her eyes search her husband's every move, every gesture, for signs of hope and doom is one of the most shattering expressions of love you will ever see on stage.
Around these two magnificent performances, Howard Witt, as Willy's friend and enemy Charley, and Ted Koch, as the sleazy, amoral son Happy, provide acting that in any other company would steal the show.
And then there is Anderson's powerful, intelligent and deeply truthful performance as Willy's tormented son Biff. It says everything that, even beside Dennehy and Franz, Anderson reminds us that this is Biff's play, too.
In a drama that is about the need to pay attention, these actors take full notice of the haunting beauty of Miller's language, making it seem at once natural and poetic.
Falls' direction uses Mark Wendland's brilliant revolving sets to create the sense of Willy's world spinning out of control. At a pace even sharper than it was in Chicago, Falls lets the play unfold with a superb mix of lyrical dignity and fierce urgency.
Between them, he and his wonderful actors remind us that this play was great in 1949 and will still be great in 2049. But we are so gripped by what is happening in front of us right now that, while the play is on, neither the past nor the future seems to matter much.
Robert Falls' revival of Arthur Miller's ''Death of a Salesman'' is like that red '28 Chevy Willy Loman loves so: With a good washing and polishing and maybe a Simonizing job, it could be like new. It's no humdrum revival, but a re-energizing and re-imagining of this emotional tidal wave of a play. This is the ''Death of a Salesman'' for the millennium.
When the play first opened in 1949, it was admired but controversial. Was it in essence a political statement, a critique of capitalism's penchant for chewing people up and spitting them out? Was it a tragedy of the common man? Was it basically psychological and sexual, as Elia Kazan's original direction and Jo Mielziner's sets had it?
Such issues, then debated so heatedly, now seem to miss the point, thanks in part to the passage of time and in part to this magnificent new production.
Brian Dennehy's Willy is a huge figure belittled and disoriented by life's changing rhythms. The hale-fellow job he had (and was miscast in) is stripped from him. Something is broken in him. All the frontiers, geographical and psychic, are closed.
Dennehy gives us a man bewildered by the rotations of time and seeking anchor in the rootedness of house (planting seeds in the back yard in the middle of the night) and family. There's an angry, explosive touchiness in Dennehy's Willy that is forever at odds with both a public need to be ''well-liked'' and a deep love for his family.
Elizabeth Franz really takes a new look at Linda Loman, Willy's wife, who emerges not as a hand-wringing dishrag but a smart, sharp, sensible woman who has made a pained peace with the failings of her husband and insists that her sons do the same. Fragile and tremulous, this Linda is yet capable of blasts of anger and of joy.
The Loman sons - Biff, 34, and the younger Happy - are refractions of Willy. Biff is a self-destructive vagabond. Happy is, in his mother's words, ''a philandering bum.''
Biff, once a high school football star and now a curdled idealist, is the richer, fuller role, and Kevin Anderson brilliantly gets every ounce of self-loathing and of tender decency out of it.
How much like Willy is this Biff! There's a great scene at the end of the first act when the four Lomans, happy for a minute in their foolproof scheming, are sitting around the kitchen table. Willy keeps shushing Linda; Biff explodes; deflated, Willy slumps off.
It's such a moving, recognizable moment that we suddenly see what ''Salesman'' - the great part of ''Salesman'' - is about: the awful and wonderful inner dynamics of family.
The key scene in the second act is the disastrous father-son dinner at Frank's Chop House. The boys' crass skirt-chasing dissolves into a scene years back when Biff surprised his father with a woman in a Boston hotel room. Good Ibsenite that he is, Miller intends this to be the traumatic, ambition-wrecking, disillusioning moment for Biff. It's also the inspiration for Biff's subsequent relations with women.
This dramaturgy and psychology look a bit creaky now (compare Blanche's discovery about her husband). But Falls' exquisite staging, as father sits behind son and tries to explain, achieves something basic and real.
For the last scenes, the stage (with exciting set design by Mark Wendland, and the vital contributions of Richard Woodbury's music and sound and Michael Philippi's lighting) becomes a vast emptiness. Biff here destroys illusions, insisting on the ''truth'' about everyone's ''phony dreams.''
This raw stripping away of illusions brings Willy and Biff together in a wrenching embrace as Anderson kneels, sobbing, and reaches up for his father's face. But it's too late for Willy to find new dreams.
Miller's is not a perfect play. It's sometimes too explicit in its moralizing, and it is too eager to offer simplifying explanations. But it's full of passion, and it knows the heart of family life.
His right hand, so sturdy and thick-fingered, keeps flying pitifully to his forehead, to what he assumes is the source of all that pain. He presses at his temples, he pulls at his cheek, so hard that you're surprised that his face remains intact. You get the sense that Willy Loman would crush his own skull to destroy the images inside. The most frightening thing of all is that you understand exactly what he's feeling.
In the harrowing revival of Arthur Miller's ''Death of a Salesman'' that opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, 50 years to the day after it made its epochal Broadway debut, you walk right into the mind of its decimated hero, played with majestic, unnerving transparency by Brian Dennehy.
Robert Falls's powerhouse staging, first seen at the Goodman Theater in Chicago last fall, never looks down on Mr. Miller's deluded Brooklyn dreamer or looks ennoblingly up to him as a martyr to a success-driven country. Instead, it demands that you experience Willy's suffering without sociological distance, that you surrender to the sense of one man's pain and of the toll it takes on everyone around him.
Mr. Miller, who had originally titled the play ''The Inside of His Head,'' has said he thought of having it occur in a set that would indeed be in the shape of a man's head. Although Mr. Falls and his expert production team are mercifully less literal, that is effectively the landscape they create here.
The Brooklyn home to which Willy Loman returns from an aborted road trip at the play's beginning is no stable sanctuary. The designer Mark Wendland has conceived the rooms of the Lomans' house as moving platforms that shift into and out of focus, just as Willy himself is unable to remain fixed in an immediate reality; the lines between the play's harsh present and Willy's reimagining of the past have seldom seemed so fluid. Michael Philippi's lighting floods the stage with a darkness that is always threatening to consume, the image of the tidal pull of depression itself.
In the opening scene the audience's eyes are seared by the headlights of Willy's car. Mr. Dennehy first appears, fabled salesman's cases in hand, as a sinister silhouette. A jagged, fragmented jazz score, by Richard Woodbury, slices the air. When Willy's wife, Linda, played by the sublime Elizabeth Franz, materializes in her bathrobe on a raised platform, her voice spectrally amplified as she calls his name, she seems a phantom whom her husband can't quite summon into full being. ''It's all right,'' Willy says wearily. ''I've come back.'' The lines, Willy's first, have seldom registered so clearly as lies. There is admittedly a flavor of melodrama in this insistent air of urgency, but it doesn't feel disproportionate. When Linda admonishes the couple's grown sons, Biff (Kevin Anderson) and Happy (Ted Koch), saying that Willy is ''a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him,'' it is not mere hyperbole.
Linda goes on to conclude the sentence with the famous words ''so attention must be paid.'' That line has traditionally been held up as a social signpost, a cry to heed the plight of an aging, insignificant man seduced and abandoned by a capitalist system that promised unattainable glory. Yet as Ms. Franz delivers the words with a rage that seems shaped by both horrified compassion and selfish fears, they are at once more particular and universal: when people hurt as Willie does, it is inhuman to look away.
Scholarly analyses of ''Salesman'' have most often focused on its political consciousness (surely you remember discussing ''tragedy and the common man'' in high school) or its expressionistic form. The play certainly provides ample fodder, including those now clunky-seeming ''j'accuse'' declarations aimed at the corporate dream machine, for both kinds of dissection.
But these aspects of the drama are secondary to what gives ''Salesman'' its staying power and has allowed it to grip audiences as far from the United States as Beijing: its almost operatic emotional sweep in examining one unhappy family and the desperate, mortally wounded father at its center.
For Mr. Falls and his fiercely engaged cast are, above all, committed to the work's tragic, conflicted familial love story, between husband and wife, between father and sons. The play's most remarkable aspect is that even as it conjures Willy's grimly distorted worldview, it lets us see clearly his effect on those around him. In this staging, those people express, in highly personalized portraits, the genuine pity and terror given more abstract voice by the choruses of Greek tragedy.
''I live in fear,'' says Linda at one point. Ms. Franz's astonishing portrayal shatters that character's traditional passivity to create a searing image of a woman fighting for her life, for that is what Willy is to Linda. She also emerges as the only realist in the family, even as she does everything she can to bolster Willy's sagging illusions.
Watch how Ms. Franz's face changes from taut, smiling reassurance to a fearful exhaustion the moment Mr. Dennehy looks away from her. The continuing, tremulous nodding of her head registers as a direct consequence of having worked too hard and too long to be a reassuring wife. When she speaks to her neglectful sons in their father's absence, it is with a fury that scorches. If need be, she will sacrifice her children for her husband, to whom she clearly remains, on some level, sexually bonded.
The second and equally important love story in ''Salesman'' is that of a father and his elder son. And the ambivalent, tentative dance of courtship and rejection enacted by Mr. Anderson's Biff, who has returned home after a long, self-imposed exile, and Mr. Dennehy's Willy is heartbreaking. In his deeply affecting performance, Mr. Anderson tempers the adolescent rage of a man who has never overcome a father's betrayal with a more profound sense of conflict: the only way to win Willy's approval is to give in to his fantasies, and that way lies self-destruction. The cocky, callous Happy, sharply drawn by Mr. Koch, doesn't bear the burden of such consciousness, and you can already sense that one not so distant day he is going to wake up as lonely and frightened as his father.
The rest of the supporting cast is fine, especially Howard Witt as Charley, Willy's gruff, argumentative and ultimately beneficent next-door neighbor. A scene set in the more successful Charley's business office offers the evening's most jolting shock of recognition. Mr. Dennehy, his face inches from Mr. Witt's, stares hard, as though in prelude to a fistfight. What he says, after a long pause, is: ''Charley, you're the only friend I got. Isn't that a remarkable thing?''
Mr. Dennehy's performance will probably be the most debated aspect of this production. It is not in the idiosyncratic, finely detailed vein so memorably provided by Dustin Hoffman in 1984. What this actor goes for is close to an everyman quality, with a grand emotional expansiveness that matches his monumental physique. Yet these emotions ring so unerringly true that Mr. Dennehy seems to kidnap you by force, trapping you inside Willy's psyche.
The rhythms of his performance are exactly those of the play itself, in which every scene moves from artificially inflated optimism into free-falling despair. Mr. Dennehy's eyes go bleak and fearful even as that broad salesman's smile splits his face. He continually brings his finger to his lower lip, like a fretful child, as though suddenly forced to remember what he had been trying so very hard to forget.
It is also jarring, and utterly appropriate, to see such a large man physically pushed around by the other, smaller men in the play. And I will always be haunted by the image of Mr. Dennehy's infantile fragility when he shields his face with his hands, palms outward, before an angry, confrontational Mr. Anderson.
In art, greatness and perfection seldom keep close company, and the flaws of ''Salesman'' are apparent here: the contrived, detective-story-like exposition of why Biff resents Willy; the unfortunate moments of speechifying, especially in the final requiem scene, and the iconic presence of the fantasy figure of Willy's older brother, Ben (Allen Hamilton, who looks a bit too much like Colonel Sanders here) as the American Dream incarnate.
Watching ''Salesman'' in this production, you acknowledge the flaws, but only fleetingly. In willing himself into the imagination of a small-time, big-thinking loser, Mr. Miller generated an immense natural force of empathy that, oddly, he never equaled in his more autobiographical works, like ''After the Fall.''
I could hear people around me not just sniffling but sobbing. I feel sure that audiences for ''Salesman'' will be doing the same thing 50 years from now.
The sense of occasion is inescapable. Fifty years to the day after its opening, Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," perhaps the defining play of the waning American century, has returned to Broadway on the cusp of the next. At a time when disenchantment seems to perfume the very air we breathe, this play's trenchant and tender exploration of both the necessity and the tragedy of disillusionment is indeed as resonant as ever, its dissection of an American dreamer as topical as today's stock prices.
Of course, such a sense of occasion also brings with it elevated hopes. Robert Falls' new production, from Chicago's Goodman Theater, is hardworking and admirable, even if it may not strike everyone as the seminal or revelatory event that advance word and the inevitable 50th-anniversary media hoopla that has attended it led one to expect. It's solid and respectable without being reverent, as is the Willy Loman of Brian Dennehy, but it only intermittently touches the emotional depths of the play. Its success is fragmentary rather than cumulative, its overall effect somber and ruminative rather than transcendantly moving.
Dennehy's physical bulk gives his performance a particular poignancy. The mental disintegration of a man of such visible solidity is painful to witness. Dennehy's hands are endlessly rubbing his forehead, shading eyes that betray the fear that Willy is forever swallowing back. It's like he's constantly puzzling out the faulty arithmetic that has resulted in a life that doesn't add up to enough to cover the insurance premium.
The childlike gleam that appears in Willy's eyes whenever he lapses into a happy reverie from the past or a dream of the future is the most telling and touching element in Dennehy's performance. "Willy's never so happy as when he's looking forward to something," as wife Linda says, and Dennehy gives palpable and, at times, almost unbearable truth to the words.
For Dennehy's Willy, the American dream is like a drug habit he can't kick, both soothing and corrupting. When he can shake his sense of failure by grasping a fleeting vision of past or present joy, it's like a rush of narcotics going right to his heart. The tension leaves Dennehy's hulking frame; his limbs go slack with relief.
But over the course of the play a sense of growth is missing from the performance; Dennehy's Willy starts out almost where he ends up three hours later, anxious and brooding, with the same hopeful glint in his eyes as he contemplates the meager insurance money he imagines will provide his son with the chance to shortcut his way to specious success. This Willy Loman seems quietly doomed from the start, so his demise doesn't have the power it should.
The wiry, wilted physical presence of Elizabeth Franz as Linda is also emblematic of her character. Franz's face is drawn with anxiety from the play's opening moments, her mouth trembling visibly as if unconsciously echoing Willy's disturbed mutterings. She looks like a woman prematurely aged by caring, and her forced cheeriness is almost chilling.
But the steel in this woman's careworn heart comes vitally to the fore when she's pleading with her sons to respect their father and his thankless life -- these scenes are the production's emotional high points, and Franz is immensely moving in them.
Kevin Anderson is physically perfect for Biff -- he looks like a high school Romeo whose good looks have gone slightly to seed -- and he's powerful in the play's climax, when Biff and Willy finally, fitfully connect. At times, his performance lapses into period-style flatness, particularly in the flashback scenes, always the play's hardest to render convincingly. But he comes intriguingly close to giving Biff's hard-won self-knowledge the dramatic significance to the play that Miller himself has indicated it should carry.
Among the supporting players, Howard Witt stands out in a perfectly calibrated performance as Willy's neighbor Charley, a measured turn that mixes just the right quantities of sardonic contempt and unspoken sympathy.
Ultimately Falls' production reveals all the play's complexities without creating from them a seamless, fluid artwork that sweeps us up in its momentum. Miller's ideas can be seen poking up through the texture of the play with an occasional insistence that more consistently, viscerally engaging productions hide.
Part of this may be due to the complicated staging required by Mark Wendland's inventive but unwieldy set. Jo Mielziner's skeletal Loman home has been deconstructed here, reimagined as a giant blueprint of the mind of a man with a tendency to compartmentalize his life (an idea with special potency right now). But the sliding panels, circular revolves and moving boxes keep the actors in frequent, complicated motion, and are sometimes distractingly noisy. This air of effort sometimes seems to have seeped into the performance itself.
Still, a merely fine "Death of a Salesman" as opposed to a magnificent one is superior to most Broadway fare. The play is indisputably a landmark of American art in the 20th century, and it's invigorating to reencounter it as we head into the next.