Peter D. Kramer

Just not buying this ‘Salesman’

In Reviews on March 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm

“Death of a Salesman,” that titan of the American theater, is dozens of great plays in one.

Want to see a play about the lost American Dream? Arthur Miller has done that to perfection in “Salesman.”

How about a work that examines a boy who peaks in high school, whose glory days are long gone? Miller’s done that to a tee in “Salesman.”

Perhaps you’d like to watch a masterpiece about a woman who, bound by the restrictions of her age, spends her life wrapped up in her husband and sons, powerless to help them? For one of the best examples of that story, see “Salesman.”

Ibid. Ibid. Ibid.

So it comes as a huge disappointment to sit in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway and witness a lackluster production that can’t deliver a single decent play out of all of Miller’s wonders.

It all looks remarkable — Jo Mielziner’s scenic design, Ann Roth’s costumes, Brian MacDevitt’s lights and sound by Scott Lehrer — and there’s even Alex North’s music written for the original work, but the work seems hollow.

Nichols allows the Loman men — Hoffman as Willy, Garfield as Biff and Finn Wittrock as Happy — to fly off the handle so early and so often that the piece is robbed of its dynamic range. When they’re shouting early in Act 1, what’ll they do when they get to the final blowout? There’s nowhere to go.

Otherwise, Hoffman plays Willy as a sad sack with a monotone, with no spark of the salesman’s smile or confidence that would have made him “vital in New England” on the road for all those years. Granted, Willy is past his prime (and his “prime” is always in question), but there should still be flashes of the old Willy, a man who could close a sale. Hoffman’s character has none of that, no twinkle in his eye, not even the slightest glimmer.

(For a nuanced and indelible performance of the same role, see another Hoffman: Dustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman in 1984 could at the very least sell you on the idea that he could sell.)

The other Hoffman Loman — this Philip Seymour one — is all rage at the dying of the light, in a performance that is so one-note as to be tragic.

Biff Loman gets no better: In the hands of Andrew Garfield, who will be Spider-man at multiplexes this summer, Biff sounds like DeNiro and sputters like a teakettle. Biff shoves Willy around a couple of times.

Really? Shoving Willy Loman?

(In the 1984 production, John Malcovich, as Biff, devastated his dad with a kiss, not a shove.)

This production should come with a subtitle: “Death of a Salesman: When bad things happen to great characters.”

Wittrock is more compelling as Happy — and might have been a better Biff, if Garfield didn’t come with all that  box-office promise — but even he succumbs to the screaming in what should be the most tender of scenes, at Willy’s gravesite.

Linda Emond and Bill Camp are solid and wholly believeable as the long-suffering Linda and as neighbor Charley. But if you’re looking to Linda and Charley for glimmers of reality in “Death of a Salesman,” you’re looking too far.

The hype is considerable for this production as a “Salesman” for our time, but as in all sales jobs, a word to the wise is in order.

Caveat emptor — to the buyer beware.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine: Philip Seymour Hoffman is Willy Loman in a new production of “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Mike Nichols.

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