Theater review: ‘Death of a Salesman’ on Broadway
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The Great Recession is the unbilled star of Mike Nichols’ Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” — the scene-stealing specter, invisible but ever-present, that gives the production its ferocious relevance more than 60 years after the play’s birth.
But there is a member of the official cast who is doing just as powerful a job of reclaiming the drama for a new generation. That performer is Andrew Garfield, the rising Los Angeles-born, British-raised actor who captured attention as the brooding, ethical Eduardo in “The Social Network” and whose casting as the new Peter Parker in “The Amazing Spider-Man” is likely to catapult his celebrity to intergalactic heights when the film is released this summer.
But Hollywood fame seems rather trifling when held up against the wrenching artistry of Garfield’s portrayal of Biff, elder son of Willy Loman, the protagonist of Miller’s tragedy of the common man, here played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with commanding bluntness.
Garfield plunges to the sea-floor bottom of this fractured father-son relationship and reveals unspeakable heartbreak throughout his perilous descent. Attention must be paid to such a performance, which not only supplies the production’s turbo-charged catharsis but also reminds audiences of the incredible power of great plays when they are inhabited by an actor willing to expose those primal wounds that in real life are just too painful to reopen. Aside from Garfield’s eviscerating turn, Nichols’ production is sturdy if unspectacular. This is a revival that strives to be faithful to the original Broadway staging by Elia Kazan, one of the 80-year-old Nichols’ early mentors. And the haunting strains of Alex North’s original score, with its plaintive flute solos, carry us back in time to the 1940s of Miller’s playwriting breakthrough.
Much of the physical production from 1949 has been preserved. Jo Mielziner’s scenic design, reconstructed by Brian Webb, with its hallucinatory Brooklyn home discernible in every scene, domestic and otherwise, allows for both the fluidity and confinement that the play relies on. Pitched battles build and dissolve with a cinematic freedom, and the psychological intimacy that’s achieved rivals that of a movie close-up.
This honoring of Broadway precedent isn’t as nostalgic as it sounds. Nichols is simply remembering what works from his own experience and sticking with it. And he’s not timid about putting his own stamp on the production. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt is less enamored of the chiaroscuro effects that were one of the hallmarks of Kazan’s staging. The illumination is stark, less dreamlike, more in keeping with an interpretation of the play that sees Willy as a man felled by the cruel pressures of an economic system that leaves little room for gratitude, loyalty or even self-respect.
Accepting the 44-year-old Hoffman as a shambling 60-year-old ready to shuffle off his mortal coil isn’t always easy. But this is an actor of fierce conviction, and he summons his signature intensity to persuade us. If his unlined face demands a fair amount of suspension of disbelief from the audience in the older scenes, the flashback moments, in which he throws around a football with his two boys (Happy, the younger and more sensually grasping, is played with seductive boyishness by Finn Wittrock), have an athletic vitality that seems just right.
But it’s not age that prevents Hoffman’s forceful performance from being a truly great one. Lee J. Cobb, the most heralded of all Willy Lomans, was even younger when he originated the role. The problem is that Hoffman’s acting is just a bit too monochromatic — there’s fury and intelligence but not enough variety to the palette. Even his more daring flourishes, such as the kiss he plants on Garfield’s mouth in a climax of father-son bonding, have a pounding tread. He’s like a singer with an imposing baritone who after a long concert can leave you at once bowled over and eager to hear a more agile tenor.
Linda Emond, who plays Linda, Willy’s stalwart wife, is a distinguished stage veteran and one of Tony Kushner’s supplest interpreters. But her portrait isn’t individualized enough — the long-suffering steadfastness lacks texture. Like Hoffman, she can unleash feelings in a convincing thunderclap, but there’s a generic grayness to the characterization and when she speaks the play’s most famous speech (the rousing “attention must be paid” plea to her sons about their father), the words have the self-conscious ring of an audition monologue.
John Glover, making galloping cameos in a safari get-up by costume designer Ann Roth, looks rather lost as Ben, Willy’s adventure-seeking wealthy brother, who is conjured in the retrospective fugue of lost opportunities and anguished compromises. These surreal leitmotifs take Nichols off his game. He’s more secure when on quotidian footing. The scenes between Willy and his unfailingly generous neighbor Charley (the excellent Bill Camp) and the office showdown between Willy and his impatient boss Howard (a superb Remy Auberjonois) are much more sharply handled.
But this is a “Salesman” that makes a strong appeal to a younger generation, and in the early going the production is most alive in the attic bedroom where Garfield’s Biff and Wittrock’s Happy share over cigarettes their dreams for themselves and their fears about their father, whose mind is cracking under the stress of money woes and the strain of paternal disappointment and regret. These floundering sons are in no position to help out financially, and both actors lay bare the guilt that has drawn their characters back home and the lingering resentment that makes them both want to flee again.
Hoffman may not show all sides of Willy’s nature, but he captures the angry bluster of a man who has long preached the superficial values of a trade that puts appearance over substance. Now a victim of that same standard, he takes it out on Biff, once a high school football star bound for college stardom, currently a 34-year-old drifter with faltering ambition and a police record.
Garfield, in one of the most emotionally naked performances I’ve ever witnessed in the theater, lets us see the crippling weight of Willy’s overblown expectations. This young man becomes the play’s protagonist in a kind of Oedipal stage reversal that is thrilling to behold. The hotel scene, in which Biff discovers the truth about his father’s character, is shattering. (Garfield collapses onstage in the convulsive sobs of a teenager unable to accept that his parent is a fraud.) And when in Biff’s final confrontation with his father, Garfield screams, “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!,” the words emerge like shards of glass that have been extracted from scar tissue without anesthetic.
Nichols’ painfully timely “Death of a Salesman” may have too many flaws to be one for the ages, but Garfield has made it one that I’ll remember for as long as I live.
-- Charles McNulty