Philip Seymour Hoffman is only in his mid-forties, but he is playing a formidable Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' fine production of this classic play by Arthur Miller, currently on Broadway. I sat way up in the mezzanine, so if I had not known that Hoffman is on the younger side, I could not have told. He inhabits this magnificent American loser very convincingly. This is a great role and Hoffman commits to it with his every fiber. He is fierce and doddering, self-delusional, angry, tired, frustrated, funny and complicated. He is very moving. Apparently, Hoffman played the character when he was in high school, he is playing it now, and it will be awesome to see what he does with it when he gets to be Loman's age, about 15 years from now.
I was afraid that the play would be a musty old chestnut, that it may not have aged well. Even though a bit of it feels slightly quaint (less so thanks to the sharp and sprightly direction of Mike Nichols) I was surprised that it is so moving, and so resonant today. This is a play about gigantic losers. About epic, spectacular failure. It goes against the grain of the American mythology of winning. As such, Death of a Salesman fits our age like a glove.
Perhaps in 1949 Arthur Miller was a bit of a killjoy and a kvetch for portraying a tragic vision of the little guy, always striving, always struggling and ultimately losing the battle with expectation and achievement (and taking everybody down with him). Not to mention a deeply accurate portrayal of the cruelties of capitalism, even for upstanding Americans like Mr. Loman. It was the post-war era and America was doing swell. There were big cars and big houses and people made a living. People like Willy Loman were indoctrinated and intoxicated with the possibility of success, material wealth and dreams of endless prosperity.
But now that we have been taken to the cleaners by the rapacious criminals of Wall Street and the spineless government that abets them, we must feel closer to Willy Loman than any audience ever before. He's struggling to pay a mortgage, struggling to pay for appliances, to hold on to his job, alone in the vast wasteland of selfishness and feral competition that is this country. He's full of hot air and not the greatest role model for his two loser kids, and a sexual hypocrite to boot. He is a man of today.
Mike Nichols shepherds this rather clunky play through humor, tenderness, orneriness and real pathos. He has a golden touch with tone. This production is swift and entertaining, and truly devastating: a great American drama (as opposed to some of the stuff I've seen lately, like Other Desert Cities or Seminar, meaningless drama lite). I was moved to tears at certain points. And there were plenty of accompanying sniffles around me.
As an innovation, Nichols uses the set design of the original 1949 production and the original music by Alex North. I agree that there is no point in modernizing this play. It works like a charm as it is. But until I read in the playbill that the set was designed more than 60 years ago (very expressionistic and realistic at the same time), I felt it looked cheesy, given the marvels of sets we are used to in this day and age. But it is a poignant choice and it grew on me, as it enhances the more poetic aspects of the play. The music by Alex North is perfectly suitable, cinematic and tasteful, but in my view, distracting. I could have done without music, which distracts from reality and sometimes competes with the actors' lines. I assume it exists because the action travels back and forth inside the memories of Willy Loman. The play does not heave to the conventions of unity of time and place, and the music and some projections of autumnal leaves aid these flashbacks and give Loman's reveries a dream-like quality.
The cast of splendid actors is uniformly solid: Linda Emond (she made me cry at the end), Bill Camp, John Glover, Finn Whitrock, quite impressive as Happy Loman, Glenn Fleshler, Remy Auberjonois. My biggest and only beef is with Biff, a difficult role, played by Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, and soon Spiderman MCXII). Biff is another major loser, but one who sees the self-delusion in his dad, and one who has seen the truth beneath Willy's crumbling facade of authority, the only one in whom flickers a feeble ray of hope, as he struggles to be his own man and pursue his own way. But this Biff seemed to me too wimpy, too soft in the middle, and sometimes Garfield reached too furiously. I kept wishing Ryan Gosling would materialize on stage. Biff should be more of a formidable antagonist, more of a threat, to that enormous dad of his, but this one doesn't cut the mustard. He is the weak link in a very strong production of a surprisingly good play.