Watching a videotaped stage production is a poor substitution for the real thing. Seeing actors project — vocally and physically — for a live audience when the camera has zoomed in close creates a discordant sensation, akin to listening to the person next to you in a quiet library speak at the top of his lungs. It takes getting used to. That said, Showtime’s special presentation of Broadway’s recent Tony Award-winning “Death of a Salesman” may provide a vicarious experience at best, but it’s certainly better than not experiencing this deeply affecting production at all.
Broadway’s last “Death of Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman, also was adapted for TV, but in a studio version that toned down the volume of the live production. This current small screen rendering is far less polished and physically appealing than its 1980s predecessor, but it’s also more memorable.
The main difference is in the leads: Hoffman brought to Willy an introverted, intellectual bent, while Brian Dennehy endows the character with such a raw, oversized agony that the play takes on an additional harrowing dimension. There’s no effort at justifying Willy’s behavior in Robert Falls’ stage production; he’s a man so determined to see things his way that he has become a brute. It’s oddly intriguing, but unquestionably true that this far less sympathetic, more relentless portrayal actually makes Willy a more moving figure.
The fierceness of Dennehy’s performance seems to encourage the other actors to go for broke as well. Along with Dennehy, Elizabeth Franz won a Tony for her performance as Linda, Willy’s long suffering but always supportive wife. Franz’s crumpled forehead and forced smile are affectations of the character created for the stage rather than the small screen, but after one adapts to the conflict in mediums, the power of the portrayal comes through nonetheless, especially in scenes where Willy isn’t present and Franz lets Linda’s immense frustrations show through.
Ron Eldard is an effective Biff, the son who only wants to be seen for what he is. In the climactic confrontation between Biff and Willy, Eldard captures just the right mix of cruel derision and pathetic pleading for his father’s love. Ted Koch, Howard Witt, and the rest of the supporting cast are all outstanding.
Performances on film and television are so often chopped up that coherence alone is the best for which one can hope. There is enormous dramatic power in watching an actor in real time, in seeing a sustained scene that builds to a climax, and then watching that actor enter the next scene to begin the buildup again. Kirk Browning directed for Showtime, and he uses multiple cameras to keep the visual image from stagnating.
He makes a significant error, however, in trying to separate the scenes of past and present, cutting from one to the next rather than letting them flow together. Certainly, this is a fundamental difference in the way stage and film deal with time changes, and the director would have been smart to have kept to Arthur Miller’s expressionistic style rather than changing the way the scenes transition from one to the next. As it is, the television audience barely has any sense at all of the set design, and only very occasionally gets a glimpse of other actors who might be part of Miller’s theatrical vision but are away from the main dialogue.
The live quality of theater, its palpable presentness, imbues it with a unique power that can’t easily be captured no matter how advanced the technology. It’s possible that this Showtime presentation — primarily a document of an event rather than an event itself — might just give audiences a desire for the genuine article.