Death of a Salesman
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“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away,” rages the soon-to-be cashiered salesman, far past his prime, with a head fogged in memories and a heart in shards. “A man is not a piece of fruit!” To borrow Willy Loman’s orchard metaphor, Philip Seymour Hoffman still has plenty of pulp: He’s 20 years younger than the character he plays in Mike Nichols’s magnificent, bracing revival of Death of a Salesman. Whereas firing aged workers is common enough in business, most 44-year-olds would not be hired for Willy on the basis of youth (admittedly, Lee J. Cobb was 38 when he originated the role in 1949). But Hoffman makes Willy his own: stamping the iconic figure with hangdog gravitas, slow-burning humiliation, fast-flaring passion and a genius for making each moment acute and dangerously raw. In short, Hoffman is stupendous; I can’t wait to see him do it again when he’s retirement age.
He’s also not working in a vacuum, often a danger with celebrity vehicles. In fact, the actor’s penchant for weary, bruised numbness actually clears dramatic space around him, letting other cast members fill in the blanks of Arthur Miller’s elegiac wake-up call for American dreamers. As a paragon of spousal loyalty, Linda Emond radiates rueful common sense as Linda. Andrew Garfield’s defeated, self-loathing Biff rivals Hoffman for sheer visceral punch. And Finn Wittrock’s Happy is the eternally neglected second son, using good looks to win the attention from women he never got from dad. Together they are persuasive as a real family and as a microcosm of society corroded by capitalism. Willy’s Horatio Alger notion of success—the unfettered individual making his fortune in the world—leads to an atomized clan in which each member is isolated, lonely, unconnected. It’s the modern family as a failed business model.
If Nichols had cast just the central leads smartly, there would still be plenty to savor, but down the line you won’t find a single weak performance or slack beat in this remarkably tight and muscular staging. The scenes crackle, Miller’s poetry sings and the machinery of domestic tragedy clicks horribly into place. “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive,” muses Willy bleakly as he sees a life insurance policy as the only guarantee of an income for his cash-strapped wife and feckless sons. That same grim thought must have occurred to countless citizens in recent years, facing chronic unemployment, foreclosure and crushing debt. Willy, comparatively, has it good: the aforementioned policy and a paid-up mortgage. As a grieving Linda notes in the play’s incomprehensibly sad final lines, “We’re free.”
In terms of design and direction, there’s no attempt to tart up Salesman for modern tastes or strip it down for archetypal minimalism (the latter Robert Falls’s valid approach with Brian Dennehy in 1999). This is the original-practices school of reviving classics: Follow the blueprints, read the instructions and build it carefully. Jo Mielziner’s original 1949 set design has been scrupulously re-created, and it perfectly captures the play’s mix of household intimacy and urban anomie: the Loman home as a squat cell with shadowy buildings towering behind it. Brian MacDevitt’s lights melt gracefully from sepia-tinted nostalgia to nauseous-gray dawn. And, of course, operating the heavy machinery with a steady hand is Mike Nichols, who makes certain that attention is paid to an American masterwork that still has the power to stun, amaze and electrify. Willy, you haven’t aged a bit.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote