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Durable Goods

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

You can quibble and you can mock—I often do—but after half a century, Death of a Salesman is still viable merchandise. It's as if Arthur Miller had set out to prove his hero's assertions about the old ways and the old goods being better. Yes, in a few spots the material has worn through, but the garment as a whole is still sturdy and wearable, while its plain, utilitarian look has acquired a nimbus of retro chic. No doubt about it, they wove strong in those days. As Robert Falls's new production periodically suggests, our work now is not nearly so assured.

Still, one can quarrel with the design of a good old product, and Death of a Salesman has some odd quirks to it. For instance, except for Willy Loman's doggedly faithful Linda, there are no women in it who aren't whores—or at least easily haveable. Next-door neighbor Charley apparently has a son, but no wife, and his son Bernard (who has two sons) barely seems to have one either. Howard, Willy's current boss, plays a wire recording that includes his wife's voice, self-effacingly declaring that she has nothing to say; we hear about Howard's birth—Willy was his father's star salesman—but his mother goes unmentioned. And while Willy's own father, who disappeared early, is much spoken of, the woman who bore and presumably raised him is a mystery. Willy's younger son, Happy, pursues women compulsively, including his boss's fiancée, while older son Biff, whose compulsion is to steal masculine appurtenances (suits, basketballs, fountain pens), seems to show no interest in the opposite sex at all. There's definitely something queer about Willy's world—all the more so since all salesmen except Willy know that one of the best ways to get in good with the buyers is to become sociable with their spouses.

But Willy's failure to notice that he's snubbing half the world may be the point: He fails to notice a lot, and covers over many unpleasant facts with his fantasies of self-importance. The play gets its density not only by weaving back and forth in time, but by pulling harsh, metallic threads of reality through the warp of Willy's dreams. The amount of commission he made in a given week is always being either inflated by bragging or lowered, sometimes just by the tacking on of excuses. ("They were all closed for inventory.") Material success itself, by this reading, is a sort of fantasy: You have it if you believe you have it; above the minimal subsistence level, only wanting something you don't have creates problems.

In this context, Eric Bentley's famous complaint that you never know whether an Arthur Miller play is personal or political stands as a kind of praise: The personal is the political, because we all go through life in a kind of haze, never perceiving the extent to which we substitute our fantasies for both. "He had the wrong dreams," reactive Biff says after Willy's death. But how can a dream be wrong? Only acting on it can lead to error. (The defense of the girl caught stealing from the old man in Lanford Wilson's Hotl Baltimore, 35 years after Salesman: "I got dreams, goddammit! What's he got?") Anyway, Willy's dreams, which include both brother Ben's blather about striking it rich in Alaska and the guilty nightmare of Biff confronting the woman in the Boston hotel room, are nothing if not dialectical. It's merely the dialectics of dream life, owing as much to Strindberg and Pirandello as to Miller's beloved Ibsen. If most of the scenes are grounded in realism, their sequencing, and sometimes their diction, draw on Expressionism, of which the New York stage already had a long native tradition (Elmer Rice, John Howard Lawson, the "dream" sequences in musicals) when Miller arrived. His initial title for the play was The Inside of His Head, a concept famously evoked in the first production by Jo Mielziner's ghost-haunted, poetic design.

Mark Wendland's set for the new production shows you how depersonalized—and unpoetic—America's sense of life has become. Instead of an overarching central image like Mielziner's ghost house, we get a schizoid split: Bare sliding chrome-framed walls alternate with realistic '40s rooms that swing in and out on wagons. The evening opens in such a welter of pointlessly moving scenery that I began to fear the company had turned the play into a musical. Fortunately, at that point greatness descended the stairs, in the person of Elizabeth Franz, and peripheral things like stage design ceased to matter.

Because Linda Loman's always supportive of her husband, we think of her as a minor character, living in Willy's shadow. Franz is the best Linda I've seen precisely because she doesn't let that stand in her way; her supportiveness is gigantic, suggesting the devotion of an Electra or an Andromache rather than a Brooklyn hausfrau. As a result, the one moment where she doesn't side with Willy—when he's invited to go to Alaska with Ben—suddenly becomes pivotal. Though she's obviously not the cause of Willy's failure in life, her support and the need to support her in return have made that failure possible. The word enabler, as used today, didn't exist in 1949, but that's what Linda is; the dream of business success is Willy's alcoholism. The measure of Franz's strong, ferociously affectionate performance is that it gives rise to these and many other thoughts. Never exceeding its rightful weight in the scenes, it tilts the drama till you view it from new angles—one definition of great acting.

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.

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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