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A "Salesman" for the Ages

by John Platt
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A dozen years ago my wife and I saw a Sunday matinee of Death of a Salesman, starring Brian Dennehy. It happened to be the closing performance of that Broadway production. At the curtain call Dennehy announced, “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Arthur Miller!” With that, Miller, who was 80-something, yet tall and erect, strode up the aisle like an army officer half his age and graciously acknowledged the standing ovation. If he were still alive to see the current Broadway production of “Salesman,” I think he’d add his own applause to that of the audience and critics.

Mike Nichols has applied his usual sure-handed direction to Miller’s masterpiece. He doesn’t reimagine it; there’s no need to. He’s gone back to the original 1949 production to capture the mood and magic of Miller’s writing, and he’s cast it with brilliant actors who bring their characters vividly to life. Put that all together, and you understand why classics continue to resonate forever.

This production has earned almost universal raves. The one dissenting note has come from Ben Brantley of the Times, who liked the clarity of the production, but thought Philip Seymour Hoffman was miscast. While it’s true that Hoffman is almost 20 years younger than Willy Loman, Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy, was even younger (only 37) when he played the role. With his heavyset physique (practically as square as the Lomans’ failing refrigerator) and his deep voice, Hoffman is able to convey the bone-deep weariness of Willy, yet also his almost manic belief in the American Dream and his son Biff’s potential.

Linda Emond is heartbreaking as Linda Loman, who stands by her man and yet is the only one in the family without illusions. John Glover is captivating as Willy’s brother Ben, playing him earthier than usual, and Bill Camp is memorable as the unappreciated neighbor Charlie. As the younger son Hap, Finn Wittrock has a lot of charisma to go with his need for attention. In the crucial role of Biff, the British actor Andrew Garfield lacks a little of the physical stature and golden boy quality you might expect of a former star quarterback, but he nails the Brooklyn accent, and he makes you believe Biff’s torment. The penultimate scene, where he begs Willy to accept him as he is, is devastating.

Many have noted that the play, with its references to consumer goods and struggling to survive financially, is particularly relevant at this moment in time, and that’s true. As much as anything, though,  Death of a Salesman is about fathers and sons. In contrast to the Lomans, Miller offers the relationship between neighbor Charlie and his son Bernard, the nerdy kid who grows up to be a successful lawyer without any parental pressure. (There’s also Willy’s boss Howard, who has inherited the company but not his father’s loyalty to Willy.) When his much older brother Ben appears in his visions, Willy wants to know about his father, whom he never knew. “I always feel kind of temporary,” Willy says. Clearly that insecurity accounts for much of his behavior–the all-consuming need to be liked (and respected), the determination that Biff achieve the greatness he never will.

Willy himself, of course, is not a great man (no accident his name is Loman), yet there is something truly tragic about him. “Attention must be paid,” Linda Loman says, in the play’s most famous line. It will be, now and forever, but do yourself a favor and pay attention to this peerless production. And if you miss it, pray that Hoffman comes back in 20 years to play Willy again.
 

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