Death of a Salesman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman consumes the stage as Willy Loman in the Mike Nichols directed revival of Death of a Salesman

Eight years ago Gail and I made a trip to New York to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Denehy and Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a production the New Yorker said people would be talking about for 50 years.

Last week, we went again, this time to see Hoffman in Death of a Salesman, the American classic written by Arthur Miller.  Directed by Mike Nichols, this is another production destined to stand the test of time.

The story of Willy Loman, a salesman riding high on a shoeshine and a smile, brought to destruction by time and shattered dreams, is a tragedy as heartfelt as Othello made real and personal.  My mother saw Lee J Cobb in the original production 62 years ago, while engaged to my father, a salesman.   She went with her mother, who suddenly took a considerably more dim view of her impending marriage.   Grandmother may have been right.

Willy has 2 sons: Happy, a middling successful office worker who lives to have a good time.  He has little depth as a person, but is skating through life without much care.

Biff, the other son, is another matter.  In his early 30’s, he has yet to find himself in any real way. A standout high school quarterback, he lost his scholarships and his chance for a bright future when he failed math and refused to make it up in summer school–because he caught Willy in flagrante.  Seeing Willy’s feet of clay seems to have ended Biff’s will to make something of himself, and he has been a drifter ever since.

I won’t go on about the plot, everyone has seen this play by now.  What matters here is the acting, and it’s hard not to sound like the press agent for the Barrymore Theater.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most acclaimed performers of his generation, and this role may well be the apotheosis of his talents.  I may never see an actor give a better performance.

Hoffman’s performance is so good it is easy to overlook the extraordinary talents of his co-stars, which would be a grievous mistake.  The role of Linda, his wife, is not flashy or dramatic yet crucial.  Linda Edmond manages to keep a tight rein on her emotions yet still make clear how much she loves Willy and stands by him.  Her performance is a masterpiece of restraint.

Andrew Garfield, as Biff, is a seasoned British/American actor standing on the verge of super-stardom as the new Peter Parker in the SpiderMan series.  He really has no need to undertake the tremendous physical and emotional work this role calls for, yet he shows up eight times a week to give it his all, and his all is very good indeed. Garfield plays Biff as simultaneously strong and weak, a man who is finding peace in menial ranch work out in the open air yet who still wants to please his father.  It’s a complex situation, and Garfield handles it with grace.

The critics of the New Yorker always say a play is directed “lightly” or “brightly” or “sententiously” or some other adjective that I don’t understand in relationship to directing a play.  Let’s just say that Mike Nichols, at 80, having already earned every possible honor and award,  has nothing to prove here, he’s just busy putting on one of the great productions of American theater.

New York is a long way from home, but if we had done nothing but see this one play and come straight home the trip would have been wildly successful.


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