It’s uncommonly rare to watch a revival and suddenly attune yourself to the sound of weeping around you, the shaking of your hand as you take notes and, most important, to recognize that what you’re feeling must be very much like what audiences must have felt at the opening of a great new drama.
But that’s what I felt at the critics’ preview of Mike Nichols’s magnificent revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 epilogue for the American Dream, “Death of a Salesman.”
Bucking the revisionist trend, Nichols uses Jo Mielziner’s original, skeletal set and Alex North’s hauntingly beautiful, quietly sinuous underscoring to set the tone for this most respectful production.
We are in the Loman home, a sad, almost shabby Brooklyn house surrounded by a growing concrete forest of high-rises, moodily lit by Brian MacDevitt. Late at night, travelling shoe salesman Willy Loman shuffles in from the yard, the weight of his sample case bending him.
Our first impression is of exhaustion and defeat as he mumbles to his doting wife, Linda, “It’s all right, I came back,” his lips pulled downward and eyes glazed by sleeplessness and drink.
Philip Seymour Hoffman not only gets Willy’s broken carriage right, but also his quicksilver changes between despair over his own obsolescence and the fading illusion of a brighter future. Linda recognizes most of Willy’s flaws; Linda Emond conveys the tight-wrapped devotion that has helped her survive every broken promise, every savage betrayal.
Willy’s contradictions are most apparent in the tumultuous relationship with his aimless, 34-year-old son Biff, a high school football legend whose own aspirations were choked off by an incident with his father, the witnessing of which “Salesman” builds to as it shifts between the 1948 present and the past.
Played with ferocity by Andrew Garfield, Biff cannot escape Willy’s shadow, nor his fate. And in his own way, younger son Happy, amiable and eager to please, is headed down the same road, especially in the genial performance of Finn Wittrock.
Miller created a world around Willy that sets in high relief the Loman family tragedy. They include his ambitious, globe-trotting brother Ben (John Glover, pitch perfect) and the successful neighbor (Bill Camp) whose own son (Fran Kranz) grows up to become a big-time lawyer. Nichols has cast each role exactingly; there’s not a wrong note in the group. And I have to acknowledge the brilliant costumes by the great Ann Roth, fitting each character like skin.
Since “Salesman” opened on Broadway in 1949 at the Morosco Theatre (itself now only a memory), men have responded to Willy as if seeing their own fathers crushed by a system that places material gain above all else as the measure of a man.
But Miller described writing the play as “a risky expedition into myself.” It’s Willy’s shortcomings that make us weep and, when safely alone, judge ourselves. Willy is battered, defeated and humiliated. But he’s also not an honorable man. He takes shortcuts off the paths to his flawed dream, and his sons inherit that drive to curry respect without actually earning it.
His tragedy is not just generic in the social sense, but surgically personal. Nichols has devoted as much attention to that aspect of “Death of a Salesman” as he has to every other detail of this superb production.
Through June 2 at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Information: +1- 212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)