A day before opening night of the sixth Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s 1949 plays seems a good time to resurrect my review of the fifth production which opened on March 15th, 2012 starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and directed by Mike Nichols (both of whom died two years later.) The production won Tony Awards for best revival of a play and best director. Mad Men, the TV series to which I compared Miller’s play, ran seven seasons on AMC, from July 19, 2007, to May 17, 2015.
Willy Loman is something no American wants to be – average. It is something his wife recognizes about him: “A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man,” Linda tells their two children in “Death of A Salesman.” But this is nothing Loman can admit.
Don Draper of “Mad Men” does not have to admit to being ordinary, because he is not. He cuts a glamorous profile as he meets with celebrated figures from the era, such as hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, and works with actual brand name products; in the first episode of the first season, it is Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Do we ever learn precisely what product Willy Loman is selling wholesale to retail buyers up and down the Northeast?
The fifth Broadway production of “Death of A Salesman,” with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, has opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in the same month when “Mad Men” begins its fifth season.
Both focus on a morally challenged salesman (albeit different kinds of salesmen), and explore the dark side of the business world. But for all the cult-like popularity of the television series, and its influence on fashion and popular culture and even theater – without “Mad Men,” would Broadway have been host to revivals of “Promises, Promises” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and to a new early 60’s-era musical “Catch Me If You Can?” – the viewer is meant to feel an ironic distance from its characters. Look how much everybody smokes and drinks; how sexist and racist and homophobic….how unenlightened they are; how they marvel at an IBM electric typewriter or a Xerox photocopy machine.
There is no such distance in “Death of A Salesman.” Arthur Miller’s play certainly speaks more to our tough times with its tale of an average man who fights off disillusion and defeat with spirited American delusion. But even if it were not so timely, the play derives its continued power because the audience identifies with the authenticity and intensity of the relationships –especially between father and sons, but also between Willy and his wife Linda, between the brothers Biff and Happy, Willy and his neighbor Charley, even Willy and his snotnose of a boss Howard. There is a richness of observation here that has moved each generation anew.
Director Mike Nichols, who has said he was inspired to make a career in the theater after he saw the original production of “Death of A Salesman” when he was a teenager, pays homage to that original in the current production by re-creating the angular, impressionistic set by Jo Mielziner, and using Alex North’s original haunting music. But it is Brian MacDevitt’s lighting we notice first – or rather the shadows that his lighting creates, as Willy makes his way home carrying two heavy sample cases, sighing “oh boy, oh boy.”
He is back home in his Brooklyn house, unable once again to make the sales trip he had planned, turning back at Yonkers, afraid to go further. His house used to be surrounded by grass and elm trees, but the trees were cut down to make room for looming, overcrowded apartment buildings. “The way they’ve boxed us in here,” he says to his wife. “Bricks and windows. Windows and bricks.” He is a man who is trapped, boxed in by his age and the changing landscape, but also by his own ambitions and wrong choices. Those wrong choices are most evident in the lessons he passed down to his two sons, which we see both as the action progresses and in flashbacks to the past.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is fully in the tradition of great performers who have taken on this role, a broken man who spouts Dale Carnegie truisms one moment, lashes out at his wife another, and lives entirely in the past, re-creating glory moments. Andrew Garfield, best-known as the roommate in “The Social Network” and soon to star as the next movie Spider-Man, may not physically fit one’s conception of a once-splendid high school athlete who has done nothing of note in the 15 years since. But the disbelief disappears when his character faces the reality of his father, and himself, and is broken by it.
Similarly, to those familiar with past productions of this drama, Linda Emond might not play the wife as enough of a shrunken mouse, a beaten-down worrier; she may seem too no-nonsense. I welcomed her interpretation as different and refreshing. Her speeches — “Attention must be paid” and the “We’re free” monologue at the end — are almost as familiar to American theatergoers as “To be or not to be,” and deserve a new approach.
It is the strength of the supporting cast, however, that turns this “Death of A Salesman” into a must-see production: Bill Camp as Willy’s irascible neighbor and only friend, Charley; Molly Price as the not completely fun-loving floozy; Finn Wittrock as the womanizing brother Happy; John Glover as Willy’s adventurous, successful and elusive brother Ben; Remy Auberjonois as Willy’s young boss, Howard. Howard comes closest to a character in “Mad Men.” We see him marveling over a wonderful newfangled invention, the tape recorder, going on and on about it while ignoring and thus humiliating Willy. “I think I’ll get one myself,” Willy interrupts, as if just to be noticed. “Sure,” Howard says, finally paying attention to him. “They’re only a hundred and a half.” Since we have just seen Linda go over their debts with Willy in desperate detail — the $16 a month they still owe on a refrigerator that no longer works well — we realize how out-of-touch both Howard and Willy are, and how brutal the business world. It is a small moment.
In these little-remembered moments, as in better-known scenes, “Death of A Salesman” is breathtaking.
Death of a Salesman
At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street
By Arthur Miller; directed by Mike Nichols; sets by Jo Mielziner; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; makeup by Ivana Primorac; music by Alex North; music supervisor, Glen Kelly; scenic design prepared by Brian Webb; fight director, Thomas Schall;
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Willy Loman), Linda Emond (Linda Loman), Andrew Garfield (Biff Loman), Finn Wittrock (Happy Loman), Fran Kranz (Bernard), Remy Auberjonois (Howard Wagner), Glenn Fleshler (Stanley), Stephanie Janssen (Miss Forsythe), Brad Koed (Second Waiter), Kathleen McNenny (Jenny), Elizabeth Morton (Letta), Molly Price (the Woman), Bill Camp (Charley) and John Glover (Ben).
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes. “Death of A Salesman” is scheduled to run through June 2.