Call No Salesman Happy Till He is Dead: Nichols Breathes New Life into Pulitzer Prize-Winning Drama

Hoffman doesn’t act his age, and that’s a good thing

death of a saleman web e1332341212806 Call No Salesman Happy Till He is Dead: Nichols Breathes New Life into Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama

Garfield, Wittrock, Hoffman and Edmond in Death of a Salesman.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is too young to play Willy Loman, the worn-out failure in Mike Nichols’s new revival of Arthur Miller’s masterful tragedy Death of a Salesman. Despite his drooped posture, crippling exhaustion and inability to stand proud—not to mention his preppie haircut, white as snow—he often looks no older than the two actors playing his sons. Still, he’s such an inventive and resourceful young character actor that he is never less than fascinating. To paraphrase the most famous line in the play, attention must still be paid.

Thank goodness Mr. Nichols is so obviously respectful of this high-water mark in American theater that he is reluctant to change, modify or jazz it up in any way to suit contemporary audiences. He has even restored much of Jo Mielziner’s moody set design, Alex North’s somber music and Elia Kazan’s electrifying direction from the original 1949 Broadway production starring the incomparably powerful Lee J. Cobb—all to brilliant effect, illuminating a sad, deeply analytical portrait of the death of the American Dream. And if Mr. Hoffman is not Lee J. Cobb or even Brian Dennehy in the latest Broadway revival, he serves the play in an oddly benevolent way. There’s something doubly touching about a bulky, overweight, bone-weary Willy at the end of his rope, fortified by aspirin and arch supports. The wrenching picture of failure resonates deeper. Mr. Hoffman is acting on pure instinct, not living the part the way Cobb did. But he still made me believe he was too old to drag himself through life selling clothes off the line on the road, winter and summer. He is equally matched by his two sons, the 34-year-old Biff (Andrew Garfield from the great, underrated film Never Let Me Go), once so full of confidence and personality but now—his promise as a football hero dissipated—unfocused and without ambition, with a string of failed jobs and some jail time behind him, and his younger brother, Happy (a terrific Finn Wittrock), a ladies’ man who attends the weddings of girls he’s discarded. And then there is Willy’s brave, struggling wife, Linda (played by Linda Emond with more toughness and resolve than the fragile but magnificent Mildred Dunnock showed in the original production and the 1950 film with Fredric March). My heart always throbs with compassion when Willy first appears in shadow, returning to the empty house and a sleeping Linda who loves him unconditionally in spite of what he’s put her through. She’s the eyes and ears of the play. When Willy daydreams about easier days and friendlier times when he was loved by buyers and storeowners all over New England, it is Linda who listens reverently. But she knows the truth, and it comes out in the flashbacks. Willy brags and lies, but it was always Linda who overlooked her husband’s faults while scrimping and saving to pay the bills. Willy was never popular on the road. The buyers laughed at him. Now, argumentative and short-tempered, he still embellishes his stories of past success. It is Linda who knows the man she chose was neither a great nor an important person. Now he drives 700 miles and nobody knows him anymore. There’s still not enough money to fix the water heater. He’s reached the age of 63 and the two sons he adored have turned into aimless losers, too. The future is an exhaust pipe in the garage.

It’s a grim, reflective story with an episodic structure and a time-roaming nature (Miller didn’t title his autobiography Timebends for nothing) about the terrible self-delusions of a weak man whose faked, empty life has taken a devastating toll on his family. The postwar bleakness has, under Mr. Nichols’s guidance, found a modern relevance. In the sinking economy of today, we have the same working-class traps faced by blue-collar families in financial despair. The plumbing still leaks, they’re behind on their insurance premiums, even if their kids go to college they can’t find employment when they graduate, and the 25-year mortgage is still due. A lot of men are in the same boat as Willy Loman—34 years with the same company and there’s no place to go. No more perfect picture of a human being with his best years behind him and no future to look forward to has ever been written.

Mr. Nichols illuminates every shadow of this dark, trembling and resonant play. He gets the marrow from Willy’s bones until it hurts. Shabby, cheap, dishonest, insufferable and yet heartbreaking, Mr. Hoffman plays underappreciated and disadvantaged like few others can. Strangling on his aborted dreams, he doubles over in pain when he remembers the day Biff discovered him in a Boston hotel room with a cheap floozy—a shock that psychologically unhinged the boy, who never recovered his equilibrium. One of the best scenes is when Willy goes to his boss with his hat in his hands, begging for a desk job that will prolong his life, and gets not only turned down but fired in the bargain. Mr. Hoffman is uneven, but when he is red-faced with shame, sunken with exhaustion and then crumpled with resignation, he is nothing short of great. The rage when Biff yells, “I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!” and the final scene in the cemetery, when the tortured Linda realizes she has nothing to show for her wasted life but a family in shreds—the candor of these scenes still reduces me to a state of awe. This is great writing, burnished with the glow of perceptive direction that brings out a broader implication of the drama, filling out considerably the lack of humanity in Willy that makes him so symbolic of the frustrated “little man” so many productions overlook.

Theater this tender and important doesn’t come along often. I’ve seen many productions of Death of a Salesman, both weak and strong, but I have never seen one with more passion. Don’t even think about missing it.

rreed@observer.com