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Paulanne Simmons

The Salesman is Revived

"Death of a Salesman"
Directed by Mike Nichols
Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Opened March 15, 2012
Closes June 2, 2012
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 21, 2012

Shows seldom come to Broadway with a better pedigree than the current production of "Death of a Salesman." The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama was written by no less than the great Arthur Miller. It is directed by Mike Nichols, arguably one of the finest directors of the 20th century, and it stars the acting giant, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman. Even the (more or less) supporting roles are filled by exceptional actors: Linda Emond as Linda Loman, Andrew Garfield as Biff and John Glover as Ben.

In addition, Nichols has wisely chosen not to make his mark (he doesn’t need to) by adding inappropriate flourishes or interpretations to the classic. He has reproduced the set of designer Joe Mielziner’s and the music of composer Alex North, so that today’s audiences will experience much of what audiences experienced back in 1949. Thus this "Death of a Salesman" is a faithful and moving staging of the play.

Although Hoffman at 44 may be considered young for the role, he does a credible job as the deflated, bitter and disoriented Willy. With shoulders stooped, he lumbers about and lowers himself heavily into chairs, exactly like a man who is unsure whether he can go on for one more day.

Emond embodies both the strengths and weaknesses of Willie’s wife. She is clearly Willy’s anchor but not his compass. She supports him, even lifts him when he falls, but she has no idea what direction he needs to take.

Garfield is a brooding and bruised Biff, and one of the most likable characters in the play, except, of course for Willy’s faithful, although often abused, neighbor, Charley (Bill Camp in a small role he makes bigger) and Charley’s studious and eventually successful son, Bernard (the excellent Fran Kranz). Some of the play’s most powerful scenes are those between Biff and his sexually predatory but otherwise clueless brother, Happy (a well-cast Finn Wittrock).

For the most part, those scenes that take place in the present resonate more clearly than those scenes representing Wily’s memories. Glover, who strides in as Willy’s much admired older brother, Ben, seems more like a British colonial officer than an American adventurer. Although the two brothers are supposed to be very different, it’s hard to believe Ben and Willy sprang from the same womb.

For many people "Death of a Salesman" is about how the American Dream gives people a false hope in a happy future based on wealth and success. At a time when many people feel personally let down by their country and its politicians, this message reverberates with great strength.

However, "Death of a Salesman" is also about personal decisions. Willy Loman’s interpretation of the American Dream, as achieved through money and popularity, is not shared by all Americans, or even by all the characters in the play. Charley and Bernard are a constant reproach to the Lomans and their way of life. With this in mind, "Death of a Salesman" may not be so fulfilling as a tragedy.

Although Biff sees the failures of his family and understands the irrationality of his father’s expectations, Willy dies a victim of his own delusions. And even Biff does not fully comprehend why he cannot achieve. He just knows that he hasn’t.

But if "Death of a Salesman" is not a perfect play, this production is about as close to perfect as anyone can want. It is a revival not to be missed.

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