Is Death of a Salesman really a cogent critique of the American Dream, or have the continent’s high school teachers been selling us a bill of goods for the last half a century or so?
Watching Mike Nichols’s reverent revival on Broadway, Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic seems a triumph of characterization over content, one perfectly drawn character in the middle of a play often murky in its ideas.
Willy Loman remains instantly recognizable to an audience – certainly, he is in Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman’s accomplished incarnation. He's an everyman who fits uneasily into the world, and yet pretends that he has mastered it.
On his initial entrance, Hoffman appears to be a bit miscast, lugging a couple of obviously empty suitcases across the stage with a feigned exhaustion that betrays the fact he’s about 15 years too young for the part.
Andrew Garfield – the star of the upcoming big-screen Spider-Man reboot, making his Broadway debut – is a little light in years to play Willy's older son Biff, too; he's also built like a ballet dancer rather than a former high-school quarterback.
Yet, once Hoffman and Garfield get a foot in the door, their emotionally on-the-nose performances are easy to buy. Indeed, Nichols's production is a reminder that the real magic of live theatre comes not from a total suspension of disbelief, but from the sparks that come when illusion and reality rub up against each other.
Which is, to over-simplify, what happens at the heart of Miller's time-bending play about the final day in the life of a travelling salesman from Brooklyn who can no longer make it past Yonkers.
At the age of 60, Loman has finally caught a glimpse of his true unsuccessful self in the mirror – and so is hiding deeper and deeper in his delusions as he considers taking his own life.
In screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's 2008 downer of a drama, Synecdoche, New York, Hoffman played a director awarded a genius grant after a hit production of Death of a Salesman, but his casting is more than a hip meta-joke.
While Hoffman blusters and berates with the best of them, the unique selling point of his Willy is his terrifying tumbles down the dark hole of depression. For all his bulk, the actor possesses an astonishing ability to suddenly disappear in plain view, to the point that he sometimes seems to become two strawberry-blond eyebrows floating in space.
Garfield complements Hoffman well as an impassioned and vital Biff, who desperately needs the reality of life as a Loman to be acknowledged. There's the problem of the play: The truth that will set the son free will also kill the father.
The leads get strong support from an oily Finn Wittrock as younger brother Happy, who is even described by own mother as a “philandering bum.” Only Linda Emond, as an overly composed Linda Loman, sticks out; she seems to live in a different class and borough from the husband and children.
Nichols's overall approach to the play is nostalgic, as he aims to recreate the sensation that was Elia Kazan's 1949 premiere production. The set design is, in fact, Jo Mielziner’s original – a spectral house that haunts the action of the play even when the action moves to Manhattan offices and restaurants.
He even resurrects Alex North's original incidental music – it’s perhaps there that this version veers most dangerously close to being a museum exhibit.
Ultimately, through the force of Hoffman's acting and the enduring resonance of the material, this Death of a Salesman is still a night to make men weep – even if that is a slightly easier accomplishment now than it was 63 years ago.
On the subject of the American Dream, Miller once told an interviewer that it was the “largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out – the screen of the perfectibility of man.”
It's slightly surprising, then, to realize that Death of a Salesman actually buys in to the idea of meritocracy, that honesty and hard work will take you to the top.
Biff, the high-school football hero who cheated on his math exam and never applies himself, ends up in a series of dead-end jobs. His studious neighbour Bernard, by contrast, not only grows up to be a lawyer, but he’s preparing to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court when we meet him.
In this sense, Death of a Salesman can come across as simplistic and moralistic – a nerd's revenge on the popular kids who used to beat him up at school.
For a classic American work of literature that really dissects the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby still towers above the rest. As it happens, it's on stage in New York right now too – in an eight-hour event called Gatz.
In this Elevator Repair Service production, Wooster Group regular Scott Shepherd plays a unnamed man who arrives at his office one day to find his computer is on the fritz. While he's waiting for IT to show up, he picks up a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby and begins to read it aloud – all 49,000 words of it.
At first, Shepherd simply narrates as work life goes on around him, but gradually events begin to foreshadow, parallel or echo the story of Nick Carraway and the self-made millionaire next door.
Director John Collins's un-adaptation is relentlessly imaginative as the worlds of the modern-day, middle-class office and 1920s high society merge; the ensemble is a wonderful assemblage of physically incongruous actors who would never be cast in the parts of Daisy or Gatsby under any other circumstances. (I loved Ross Fletcher's bald, blank-faced Gatsby most.)
The exhilaration of the feat does start to wear off as final chapters approach, but overall, Fitzgerald's prose is surprisingly gripping spoken aloud. After its latest two-month stint at the Public Theatre, Gatz heads to London next – and it would be a swell addition to a future edition of Toronto's Luminato or Vancouver's Push Festival.
Death of a Salesman is currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. Gatz is playing at the Public Theatre in New York until May 13.
Death of a Salesman
- Written by Arthur Miller
- Directed by Mike Nichols
- Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield
- At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York
- 3.5 stars
- Text by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service
- Directed by John Collins
- At the Public Theatre in New York
- 3.5 stars