Mike Nichols is up for a ninth Tony award next week for his quietly devastating revival of “Death of a Salesman.”
I met with the director a few nights ago at Bar Centrale, a Broadway watering hole. We spent the evening over drinks sharing stories about our fathers, who were no less present for being long dead.
Some tidal force kept the conversation ebbing between longing memory and sharp reality. To that extent, the shadow of playwright Arthur Miller loomed over our conversation.
For “Salesman” is, above all, the story of Willy Loman (played with shattering sensitivity by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a husband and father whose vivid happy memories cannot blot out his failures of achievement and, more important, of character.
“My father died when I was very young,” Nichols said. He was wearing a dark bomber jacket and in the subdued light his usually lively face seemed a bit drawn and melancholy.
The family had traveled from Sakhalin Island, beyond Siberia, to Berlin.
His father had to learn German and retake his medical exams, and then do the same thing in New York when, through a fortuitous quirk of the Hitler-Stalin pact, they were afforded a chance to escape that German Jews were denied.
“There was no time to be a good father,” Nichols recalled. “There was no time for anything. We got an apartment in the West ’70s, opposite the Pythian Temple. I was sent to boarding school because I was difficult. Then he got leukemia and he died.”
Happier memories crept in to the conversation: In New York, as in Berlin, his father’s patients included the rich and famous.
“I had a picture of me and Pola Negri on the running board of her Rolls Royce, and I had a Teddy bear that was bigger than myself,” he said. “In New York it was Horowitz and all the big Russians. And Sol Hurok and Mrs. Hurok, who was a hypochondriac, they were his prime patients. That’s how we went to ‘One Touch of Venus’ and the ballet.
“After my father died, I would see Sol Hurok in the Russian Tea Room and he always said the same thing: ‘D’joor veery funny. But d’joor fodder vez funnier.’ He was like working for him after he was gone!”
Nichols was funny indeed, first making his mark in the 1950s as the male half of the comedy duo Nichols and (Elaine) May. But his career soon took a different turn.
No other director of his time has moved so fluidly between Broadway and Hollywood, nor been as celebrated.
He won an Oscar for “The Graduate” (1967) but his lacerating film of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” came earlier and “Carnal Knowledge,” Jules Feiffer’s scorching vision of the war between the sexes, came after.
Before all of those, he had begun directing on Broadway when Neil Simon’s producer chose him to stage “Barefoot in the Park” and then “The Odd Couple.”
Nichols’s memorable productions include plays by David Rabe (“Hurlyburly”) and Tom Stoppard (“The Real Thing”), as well as the musical “Spamalot.” On a lark, he produced “Annie,” one of the most popular, not to say lucrative, musicals of all time.
And now “Salesman,” Miller’s pitch black mirror image of Simon’s comedies.
Nichols’s production hews close to the original, staged in 1949 by Elia Kazan. The revival uses the same skeletal Jo Mielziner set and composer Alex North’s haunting music.
I mention that it’s the first production I’ve seen in which Willy, a philanderer and rule-breaker, is so clearly as much the victim of his own failure of character as he is of the unattainable American dream.
Nichols didn’t see much difference.
“There’s nothing in the American dream about character,” he said. “It’s a serious flaw. One of the sadder things in that particular version of the American dream is that it expects nothing from the individual except making it. And not getting caught.”
He cited Alexis de Tocqueville, still awed by the 19th- century Frenchman’s prescience on the subject.
“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans,” Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America,” “one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: How much money will it bring in?”
“How did he know that?” Nichols asked.
The legacies of our own fathers and Miller’s Loman began, not unexpectedly, to merge as the evening wore on. Nichols sees the pressures of making financially as having grown only more poisonous since “Salesman” opened.
“There’s so much more in the play than any of us knew,” Nichols said, adding that “the world has turned sharply further in that direction.” I got the sense that he is still discovering truths in Miller.
All the more reason, then, to listen carefully to this acid drama. Forgiveness, Nichols agreed, is essential to moving on as men in the shadows of our flawed fathers. It was true for Benjamin Braddock’s graduate and it is true for Willy Loman’s struggling sons, Biff and Happy.
As for his own father, he confided something classically Mike Nichols, at once sad and deeply funny.
“I sort of had to go get him and start imaginary conversations with him,” he said.
“We’re doing very well!”
“Death of a Salesman” runs through tomorrow at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com.
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.