From left, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Finn Witrock, Andrew Garfield, Elizabeth Morton and Stephanie Janssen in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman,’ directed by Mike Nichols.(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine)
NEW YORK – Sixty-three years after its premiere, Arthur Miller’s masterpiece "Death of a Salesman" still delivers a terrific theatrical wallop. It’s hard to find any faults with Mike Nichols’s impeccably staged revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th St., which is acted with great feeling and skill by a gilt-edged cast featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, Linda Edmund as his wife Linda, and Andrew Garfield as Biff and Finn Witrock as Happy, their sons. Nor can one be critical of Mr. Miller’s remarkable play, which is still as meaningful today as it was six decades ago; and so shrewdly constructed, so true to its own genius from scene to scene and line to line, that it becomes for each new generation of playgoers a vivid experience, intensely lived.
Mr. Miller has written a tragedy modern and personal, not classic and heroic, which delivers a unique emotional punch as few plays do, taking hold of the audience’s attention from scene one, igniting their emotions and not letting them dim until the final curtain.
We first meet Willy, the most heartbreaking of all salesmen, at a moment of crisis, lugging his heavy bags into his Brooklyn home late at night, exhausted and frightened after 34 years on the road. He is no longer able to drive his car safely, which means he cannot continue to work on the road as a salesman. He seems to be at the end of his rope both physically and emotionally.
He is a good man, a well-meaning husband and a loving father. But, at 63, his mind is wavering. Although he has always clung to the phoniest of all American dreams about being "well liked," he is beginning to realize that this is not true. He confides to his loving wife that people are beginning to laugh at him. To make matters worse, one son, Happy, is a freeloader and womanizer, while the other, Biff, is not much more than a vagabond. And he, Willy, is convinced that son Biff hates him.
When Mr. Miller first conceived of the play, he said he called it half jokingly "The Inside of His Head." He said he wrote it not as a series of actions and flashbacks, but as an account of what was going on in the mind of a man who was now old and who lives in the present and the past simultaneously.
"The kind of man," Mr. Miller explained at the time, "whom you see and hear mumbling to himself on the subway."
It takes only a few moments to adjust to Mr. Hoffman’s Willy. At age 44, he is short and bulky. I was afraid that onstage he would appear a bit young to be playing the 60-year-old Willy, although Lee J. Cobb was only in his late 30’s when he originated the role. Yet, Mr. Hoffman’s first entrance, slowly shuffling across the stage, fumbling for his house keys, establishes the reality of the aging, bewildered Willy. Mr. Hoffman is true to all aspects of Willy and to Mr. Miller’s play, combining both the foolish and the admirable aspects of the man. He gets Willy’s faults and goodness into his portrayal, making his performance not merely admirable, but also deeply sympathetic.
He is at his best in the play’s later scenes, beginning with that in which Willy discovers that Bernard, the boy next door – who was just a bookish grind when Willy’s Biff was a football hero, is now going off to argue a case before the Supreme Court. At that point, Willy is beginning to understand a terrible truth that he just cannot support: he has taught his own sons the wrong formula for life, and it is now too late to undo the damage he has done.
Mr. Garfield, as Biff, once Willy’s chief glory and now the source of his bittersweet disappointment, gives a deeply moving performance. Biff loves his father, but has never gotten over the disillusionment of an incident in Boston, when he found the lonely old man in a hotel room with a woman.
Ms. Edmund is touching as Willy’s heroic wife, bringing dignity to her marriage vow and passion to her unwavering defense of Willy. As Willy’s second son Happy, Mr. Witrock successfully creates a callow, superficial character who has a pathetic inability to understand what is happening to his father.
The supporting cast all seem to have been hand-picked, and all deliver first-rate performances. Four who should be singled out are Fran Kranz as Bernard, the boy next door; Bill Camp as his father Charley; Molly Price as the Woman in the Hotel Room; and John Glover, who makes a strong impression in just three short scenes as Willy’s successful older brother Ben.
Two of the many enlightened artistic choices Mr. Nichols makes are the use of the play’s magnificent original set designs by Jo Mielziner and of Alex North’s original haunting incidental musical score, which punctuates the happenings on stage.
The set has been atmospherically lit by Brian MacDevitt and the 1940s-appropriate period costumes are by Ann Roth. What is so commendable about Mr. Nichols’s production of "Death of a Salesman" is that it does what every restaging of a classic should do and hardly ever does: it shows you a masterwork anew with such inspired genius that it makes you feel as if you are discovering it for the first time.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.