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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
at the Ethel Barrymore

GREAT EXPECTATIONS
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Remy Auberjonois and Philip Seymour Hoffman/ Ph: Brigitte Lacombe

Watching Mike Nichols’ new production of the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman, it’s hard not to be struck by how difficult it must be to be married to Willy Loman (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Linda Loman (the riveting Linda Emond) stoically puts up with failure, infidelity and fits of temper, and remains fiercely loyal and protective of her increasingly unstable spouse. Yet even while we admire her faithfulness, we don’t despise the bewildered Willy for testing it.

This compassionate, compelling production of the 1949 melodrama about the failure of the American dream breathes new life into the old standby with its unflinching empathy for all its conflicted characters. As we’re introduced to Willy, an aging salesman who’s lost confidence in his pitch, his long-suffering wife and their sons – playboy Happy (Finn Wittrock) and ne’er-do-well Biff (Andrew Garfield), who’s never gotten past being his father’s golden boy – it’s immediately clear that all is not well in this almost-paid-for bungalow. For all Willy’s bluster and bravado, his tales of derring-do reek too much of long-withered laurels and desperation. His wife is clearly worried about his well-being, and his largely oblivious sons are too immersed in their own attempts to either win or drop out of the rat race to understand what’s happening. But as Willy’s business friends age out of the business, he’s left with the stark, unfaceable truth that he had only himself to sell – and now no one’s buying.

Plump and full of bluster, Hoffman plays Willy as a man who’s not only losing his grip, but whose whole existence has been founded on deception and delusion. It’s not just that Willy’s plummeting sales aren’t living up to his past glories, it’s that his life as a traveling salesman – and its rewards – were never as great as he’d like to have everyone, including himself, believe. By way of contrast, his crotchety and more cynical neighbor Charley (brilliantly played with cantankerousness and warmth by Bill Camp), who never kids himself, manages to build something more like real security.

But even as we can see how Willy’s belief in the cult of personality and the ethos of salesmanship helped destroy not only any hope he might have had for lasting happiness, but also his shallow sons’ futures, the love these family members feel for one another, however distorted, humanizes their every action, even when the boys desert their father at what’s meant to be a celebratory dinner. Even as we watch this family tearing itself apart, we cannot help but feel for each and every self-destructive one of them. Nichols’ clearheaded comprehension of this play, in all its social and poetic scope, combined with some of this season’s finest acting, makes this decades-old play seem brand new and breathtaking in its tortured truthfulness.

 


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