Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 15, 2012
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Directed by Mike Nichols. Scenic design by Jo Mielziner. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair & wig design by David Brian Brown. Makeup design by Ivana Primorac. Original music by Alex North. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Fran Kranz, Remy Auberjonois, Glenn Fleshler, Stephanie Janssen, Brad Koed, Kathleen McNenny, Elizabeth Morton, Molly Price, Bill Camp, John Glover.
“Seeing” and “hearing” are not carelessly chosen words, by the way. What sets this Death of a Salesman apart from all the others — there have been four previous revivals on Broadway alone, the most recent (starring Brian Dennehy) in 1999 — is its fidelity to that initial production’s sights and sounds. Nichols’s utilizing Jo Mielziner’s set and Alex North’s music is no gimmick: Both elements thrust you, as nothing else can, into the imploding existence of the Loman family and its rapidly decaying patriarch, Willy.
North’s compositions alone drip with so much ache and regret that they often resound as an extension of the dialogue. Willy, who’s 60 and finding himself at odds with a life that’s advanced beyond him, disintegrates as the lightly jazzy notes unleash their tangy legato. Throughout, it’s the beat of Willy’s heart given melodic form: When he trudges indoors after an unsuccessful trip, its languorous strains are as exhausted as he is; when he stands at the threshold of his mortality, they accelerate to prove his anxiousness. This give and take, between the shape of the play and the shape of the score, is stunning on its own.
Mielziner’s set, however, achieves still more. It presents the vague outline of the Loman house, rendered in a childlike scribble, against two imposing visuals: the dreary and undernourished kitchen and two bedrooms it contains, and the threatening high-rise apartment buildings that stretch into infinity behind it. The Lomans are trapped on all sides, unable to escape either the fantasies that have sustained them through decades or the real world that is mere yards away from devouring them whole. And when Willy faces the ghosts of his past, which to him are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the people in his present, the action melts between decades so effortlessly that the effect delights with its simplicity.
This is one of the most elegant fusions of script and design in modern theatre history, and all that prevents it from having the breath-stealing impact it must have 63 years ago is how frequently it’s been imitated since. (Ann Roth’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lights keep pace nicely, but conjure fewer miracles.) It demonstrates that, on some level, Nichols has a crystal-clear vision of how the show works and, by extension, what it is. And, as with so many plays that pass from “hit” to “legend” to “fact of existence,” that’s a deceptively great accomplishment.
It’s also the only one you’ll find here. The extravagant lengths to which Nichols has recreated yesteryear’s innovations hasn’t extended to also blazing dramatic trails. In line with the design, this is a resolutely, even rigidly, traditional Death of a Salesman, and one that says nothing in any way you haven’t heard before. It doesn’t do what it does poorly, but if you have your heart set on an unusual spin on the material, a fresh characterization, or a previously unrealized laugh, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Philip Seymour Hoffman would seem to be ideal casting for Willy. Bulky and brusque but with a tender undercurrent, you can imagine how he could summon the conflicted feelings of this man who’s as devoted to and disappointed by his family as he is his work touring the Northeast with a pair of sample cases. But devotion and disappointment are as far as Hoffman goes. The actor deploys in almost every situation the same bright bark of a voice that hints at no beliefs or betrayals not found on the surface. All that changes from moment to moment is the volume: You can’t ride Willy’s wave of sorrow anywhere, because he doesn’t — for him, life is already over and there’s no point in getting overly worked up about anything.
This may be an accurate psychological portrait of depression, but it dampens the flames of this potentially searing look at the chaotic final days of this obsolete man’s existence. The play, a sharply critical look at the American Dream at a key point in its 20th century evolution, needs a Willy who can wither beneath the light of an encroaching prosperity that has no place in it for old-fashioned ways. Hoffman neither towers (like Cobb) nor cowers (like Dustin Hoffman in the 1984 revival and its subsequent television version) nor shows how one man can do believably both (like Dennehy). He simply stands still while the grave marches toward him, an acceptable choice that pays no excitement dividends.
Both Wittrock and Linda Emond, who plays Willy’s wife Linda, give more vivid portrayals, but don’t find much more depth. Wittrock’s Happy is in on his own personal joke — he knows his limitations and that he’s not getting married — and that sets up some pleasing contrasts for Wittrock to toy with from within Biff’s shadow. Emond fills out Linda to the utmost of her estimable ability, but makes no effort to recast her as anything but a stand-by-her-man stalwart. Tasked with delivering the play’s most famous lines (“attention must be paid,” and so on), she shrugs them off as though they’re inarguable conventional wisdom and hardly worthy of special notice. Hers isn’t a Linda who thinks nothing through, she’s merely one who trusts the thinking others have done for her — this production in a nutshell.
You get a number of other well-crafted performances as well — Bill Camp is wholly natural in his good-naturedness as next-door-neighbor Charley, Remy Auberjonois is the picture of clueless callousness as Willy’s boss Howard, and John Glover is inspiration personified as Willy’s enterprising brother Ben — but no surprises. In a way, it’s so textbook that it’s reassuring. But in another, the lack of any risks prevents you from truly absorbing what in its day was groundbreaking in its honesty, and prevents Nichols from addressing the weaknesses that plague the work still (particularly some overly schematic plotting that cheapens the second act).
The efficacy of this production for you, then, will depend on how you view Nichols’s halfway reverence. Does a sparkling evocation of long-slumbering stagecraft suffice on its own if it reveals heretofore obscured theatrical nuances? Or is newness of some sort a necessary accompaniment? With this blending of notions banal in their familiarity and elemental ones you’ve never seen before, you’re very much on your own to determine whether this is the most alive or the most comatose Death of a Salesman has ever been.