Durable Goods

Franz's work has a powerful effect that Brian Dennehy's Willy can't seem to equal. Dennehy's a strong presence by virtue of his size, a big, florid, bullheaded barrel of a man, and the feelings that come most readily to him—anger, resentment at injustice, the daydreamer's elation—are powerfully conveyed. But he seems to have no patience with Willy's weakness, with the dark frustration eating away at him. The scenes in which he has to open up his misery to Linda (or, in the restaurant scene, to his sons) are blurrily played, and one starts to notice how limited Dennehy's range is, both emotionally and vocally. In lieu of the pain at the core of Willy's being, we get what looks like a medical explanation: Dennehy's right hand keeps stealing up and touching the side of his face, sometimes edging over his eye or the side of his mouth, as if Willy's exhaustion were about to bring on a cerebral episode, or perhaps an attack of Bell's palsy. With all the emotional precursors of such a condition in place, this would enhance the role; without them it's reductive.

Like the recently floated theory that Willy could have coped better on antidepressants, it misses the point: Willy's problems are tangled up with those of a society that prompts him to move in all sorts of wrong directions, and then won't protect him when he falls. Even in dreams, the personal is political. Willy might not be the sharpest soul alive—intellectually only a low-man could be so naive—just as he's not the most moral. But that, as Linda keeps reminding us, doesn't excuse society's wearing him out and then writing him off. Attention must finally be paid, and a country that lets 43 million people live without health insurance, while it abolishes welfare and contemplates using its Social Security funds to gamble on the stock market, had better take a good look at Willy Loman, and think again.

Kevin Anderson (left), Brian Dennehy, Ted Koch, and Elizabeth Franz in Death of a Salesman: kitchen-think drama
Eric Y. Exit
Kevin Anderson (left), Brian Dennehy, Ted Koch, and Elizabeth Franz in Death of a Salesman: kitchen-think drama

Details

Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Broadway and 49th Street
239-6200

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Once you get past the mishap of the set, most of Falls's production is well worth looking at. None of the other performances has the blaze of Franz's Linda, but Kevin Anderson and Ted Koch make a subtly matched Biff and Happy, Richard Thompson is a quietly intense Bernard, and Howard Witt's gruffly sympathetic Charley nearly steals the show. His elegant larceny is only arrested by Falls's very eccentric staging of the epilogue as a neo-British deconstruction of a Famous Passage: Witt intones the "smile and a shoeshine" speech out of character, then the men move into an elaborately casual tableau upstage, while Franz lies down alongside Willy's grave for Linda's final plaint. Since most of Falls's staging has been free of this sort of mannerist posturing, the result suggests the director's willful desire to spoil his own best work—proof, as if any were needed, that there's a little of Willy Loman in everybody.

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