In performance, a play such as Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"--often imitated, never duplicated, so there's really no "such as" about it--can be a peculiarly exhilarating downer. Grand opera, heavyweight boxing, pick your comparison: Willy Loman's final bout offers the performance punch of both. This ordinary, rather mediocre salesman's last 24 hours on earth finds him emotionally punch-drunk, disorderly, disoriented, feeling more than ever "kind of temporary" about himself.
The reputation of Miller's 1949 play isn't so temporary.
Last year's Goodman Theatre revival, starring Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz, delivered the haymaker all over again to Chicago audiences before transferring to Broadway, where it won four Tony Awards. Now director Robert Falls' production has moved west to the Ahmanson Theatre.
The production's thrillingly acted highs remain intact, as do its flaws. But the highs are in fact a bit higher than the performance I saw last spring in New York. And the flaws matter less, although there's a new distraction: the pointless amplification allegedly required by the Ahmanson.
"You're my foundation and my support, Linda," Dennehy says to Franz early on, in a tentative embrace. The image--that of the physically domineering Willy supported by bird-like wife--captures this edition of "Death of a Salesman" in a flash.
Watching Dennehy in this role, you sense Miller's hail-fellow, out-of-fashion traveling salesman imploding by degrees. But he's a bellower and a bully as well. In this he's alone, yet not alone. In the first of several great scenes this production offers--the "attention must be paid" aria--Franz's Linda lashes out at her grown sons, the restless Biff (Ron Eldard) and the hapless, womanizing Hap (Ted Koch). With this familiar material, Franz, wonderful throughout, brings the audience to a dead hush.
Even without such excellent assistance Miller's big set pieces can do that.
Why? On one level "Death of a Salesman" is three-plus hours of humiliation. Willy, "a happy man with a batch of cement," unfortunately pursued a different line of work. At 63, no longer salaried by his employer, he is nearly broke. He swings between mania and depression. In the course of his final day, he is fired by the son (James Pickering, first-rate) of the man who hired him back in the 1920s.
A rather reductive secret (not Miller's most inspired notion) gnaws at Willy. The character is haunted by his long-ago infidelity. The discovery of this sent his college-bound older son, Biff, into a tailspin of shame and loathing. Willy, fatherless himself since he was a small boy, feeds on this guilt, hungrily.
It's two acts of pain and pitiable circumstance. What makes Willy durable, revisitable, as well as internationally resonant, is Miller's own unresolved feelings about the character (and the man he's based on, his real-life salesman uncle, Manny). Willy's a blowhard, a glad-hander, who has been schmuck-baited by the American Dream.
His sons, one a compulsive petty thief, the other a mechanical Lothario, are lost. The postwar economy's booming for many, but not the Lomans. "Death of a Salesman" picked up on something in the postwar air: Like the most interesting music of the late '40s--bebop--Miller's play captured a nervousness in the culture, an acknowledgment of the old, sentimental ways, but also of their false promises.
On opening night, Dennehy's Willy was formidable, full of barreling, reckless forward momentum. Wisely the actor has cut back on the externals--the "tells," the random fingering of his distressed face, the tugging at his lip. Dennehy still has a tendency to avoid eye contact with his cohorts; I know Willy's in a fog, but it's a Dennehy stage trait from way back. Perhaps that's why one of his best scenes in "Salesman" comes on the downbeat: the Act 2 encounter with his former neighbor, the "anemic" Bernard (Richard Thompson). Here Dennehy truly connects, touchingly so.
"What's the secret?" he asks in a small voice of this prosperous attorney. What does this guy have that Biff didn't, besides a less juvenile-sounding first name?
Franz's peerless Linda, Eldard's superb, painfully rudderless Biff and Koch's equally strong Hap work extremely well with Dennehy, in various combinations. As neighbor Charley, hilariously disaffected, Howard Witt delivers the best kind of avuncular character work: easy, textured, lived-in. Even tiny roles come alive: I've never seen anyone make so much of the waiter, Stanley, as does Kent Klineman. The same goes for Nina Landey's pitch-perfect, period-perfect pickup, Miss Forsythe.
Director Falls errs in playing the end of the play at the beginning. Willy's fate is sealed with the opening Expressionistic lighting blast, the first discordant tones of composer Richard Woodbury's music, the first, mournful rotation of scenic designer Mark Wendland's cumbersome scenic design. Subtle this ain't.
But Dennehy, Franz, Eldard and company, at their best, energize Miller's warhorse. The acting goes for broke constantly throughout--peak intensity, huge blowouts and in the end, probably, not enough in terms of internal tonal contrast. Yet with actors this good, you think: What the hell? Why not?
At this point in the life of "Death of a Salesman," the material hardly needs reverence. It needs juice. The juices flow, relentlessly, in this revival, right up through the requiem after the sparsely attended funeral--the final humiliation in a world that, for one man among many, stopped smiling back.
* "Death of a Salesman," Ahmanson Theatre, Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Also: Oct. 5, Oct. 19, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 5. $15-$60. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.
'Death of a Salesman'
Brian Dennehy: Willy Loman
Elizabeth Franz: Linda Loman
Ron Eldard: Biff Loman
Ted Koch: Happy Loman
Richard Thompson: Bernard
Kate Buddeke: The Woman
Howard Witt: Charley
Allen Hamilton: Uncle Ben
Steve Pickering: Howard Wagner
Barbara Eda-Young: Jenny
Kent Klineman: Stanley
Nina Landey: Miss Forsythe
Laura Moss: Letta
Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Robert Falls. Scenic design by Mark Wend-land. Costumes by Birgit Rattenborg Wise. Lighting by Michael Philippi. Music and sound by Richard Woodbury. Production stage managers Joseph Drummond and Mary K Klinger.