Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Theater Review: Death of a Salesman

I was a student at the University Heights campus of NYU in the Bronx when, in 1949, a girlfriend and I climbed the stairs at the Morosco Theatre, where we were seated in the last row of the balcony. The occasion was a performance of the original production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s “elegy in a Brooklyn side street,” which starred Lee J. Cobb and was directed by Elia Kazan and had received glowing reviews in the New York papers. After the curtain came down on this brilliant documentation of man’s frustration and we were attempting to return to our respective homes in the Bronx, we discovered that we had mistakenly taken a train to Brooklyn. It was, in fact, the powerful theatrical experience we had just witnessed that had actually disoriented us.

I have since seen the role of Willy Loman performed by George C. Scott (1975), Dustin Hoffman (1984) and, more recently, Brian Dennehy (1999). And all of these fine actors performed the part brilliantly. In the current production at the Ethel Barrymore, expertly directed Mike Nichols, Willy is portrayed by the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. And when the lights come up on Jo Mielziner’s original scenic design, we see that the entire setting is almost completely transparent.

And so, too, is the play’s title character. Willy is coming to the end of his career, and his dream that financial success awaits the salesman who is well-liked is quickly evaporating. He had once pinned his hopes on his two sons. But Biff (Andrew Garfield), who was a star athlete in high school, seems to be as much of a mediocrity as Happy (Finn Wittrock), his younger brother. It is Willy, however, who preaches that nothing is more urgent and important to a salesman than working hard and that children, even if they sometimes hide it, have an inherent love for their parents. It is his belief, too, that wealth can be obtained quickly, and it is this false hope that ultimately destroys him.

I was (during the current production) particularly moved by the scene in which the two sons decide to entertain Willy in a Sixth Avenue Manhattan bar. In a phone conversation, Willy’s wife, Linda (the admirable Linda Emond), admonishes Biff to “be sweet to” his father. “Be loving to him. Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”  But in the scene where Willy pleads for his job, he’s told by his boss (Remy Auberjonois) that “I don’t have a single solitary spot.... It’s business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight.”  And the bar scene that follows turns out to be grim and shocking.

Everything begins to spiral downward. And after Willy’s suicide, we’re once again moved by his long-suffering wife’s speech. Linda, who pleads for forgiveness at her husband’s grave, says that she “made the last payment on the house today.  Today, dear.  And there’ll be nobody home... We’re free ... We’re free...We’re free” she repeats and as Biff wraps his arms around Linda and leads her away, the stage darkens and the curtain falls on what remains an American masterpiece.