Attention simply must be paid to a 65-year-old play that can keep a Broadway audience spellbound for almost three hours. It’s been 13 years since Arthur Miller’s 1949 masterwork was seen on the Rialto, so Gotham was primed for this revival, masterfully helmed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Miller’s all-American fall guy, Willy Loman. While “Death of a Salesman” remains the definitive fathers-and-sons drama, its social themes are universal and painfully timely, especially in this powerful, compassionate take. So can we just call this the greatest American play ever written and be done with it?
Willy Loman (Hoffman, a superb actor going for the gold) craves exactly the kind of respect that Nichols shows here for the playwright and his original creative collaborators. Jo Mielziner’s iconic set of the Loman home — the skeletal outline of a once-solid domestic castle being crushed by the giant apartment buildings looming over it — has been meticulously replicated by Brian Webb. Mielziner’s original lighting scheme, a subtle guide through the shifting timeframes of Willy’s mental journey, is tactfully referenced in Brian MacDevitt’s intricate design. And wonder of wonders, Alex North’s original music returns to haunt us with its sorrowful flutes and cello.
Nichol’s unequivocal admiration for Elia Kazan’s legendary directorial contributions to the play’s original production hasn’t inhibited him from advancing his own views on the material. Simply put, Willy is his hero — a weak, foolish, deeply flawed man, but still his hero — and Nichols understands and indeed loves him enough to forgive him his many sins.
Willy is already a broken man when Hoffman comes onstage, dragging the heavy sample cases for a sales trip to New England that his dangerously wandering mind forced him to abort. Hoffman has our sympathies from that first entrance, the stunned look on his face an eloquent articulation of Willy’s shame and fear. As earnestly as he delivers Willy’s deluded notions that a man’s worth is defined by physical appearance and personal popularity, thesp is never less than kind to this Everyman.
“Be nice to him,” Linda Loman (Linda Emond) begs her sons. “Be sweet.” The boys don’t listen, but Hoffman does.
Emond is also unafraid to be kind to Willy, even during those fits of fury that he unleashes at his wife, his sons, his boss, and his only friend when he realizes the world he knew has changed and he’s become redundant. Linda’s quiet intelligence is well served by Emond, who shows great heart in delivering Miller’s last lament for the demoralized man who believed the lies he was told and obeyed the crooked rules he was taught, and who blamed himself for society’s betrayal of him.
Willy’s tragedy is all the greater — and the play all the more momentous — because he passed on his distorted values to his two sons, believing he was giving them a father’s gift. His strapping younger son, Happy (a total dimwit, but extremely likable in Finn Wittrock’s appealing perf), bought into his father’s fantasies and is completely lost.
There is some hope, though, for Willy’s older son, Biff (Andrew Garfield), whose second-act epiphany remains one of the great moments in American theater. Even more than his father and brother, Biff is a natural athlete, a high-school football hero who in his youth embodied all the physical beauty and personal charm that Willy equates with success.
It’s a bit of a mystery why Nichols chose to cast the lithe and slender Garfield in a role that seems to call for more brute strength than athletic grace. The thesp is far better suited to his upcoming movie role as the new Peter Parker in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and the physical incongruity is disconcerting enough to put him at a disadvantage initially. But by the end of the first act, the actor is holding his own, and when Biff finally spurns his father’s false values and asserts his own ideals, Garfield claims the moment and scores big-time.
Miller may have thought he was writing about a specific moment in American history when we admired ruthless entrepreneurs and heartless millionaires and snake oil salesmen and pretty people who felt entitled to their heart’s desires — to the point of sacrificing our own honor to emulate them. But in this revival, the moment he was writing about seems to be now.