It’s not the fault of anyone in the new Mike Nichols-directed production of the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman that the definitive revival was done in 1999.
That one, directed by Robert Falls, and starring a powerful Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman and a wrenching Elizabeth Franz as his wife, Linda, got to the heart of the play about a spiraling man vainly clinging to the lost idea that personality and likability will actually translate into career and personal success.
It was a staggering piece of theater, a flawlessly acted look at the lies that get us through the night, the same ones that ultimately destroy us.
But the new version — using the original 1949 production’s set design by Jo Mielziner, plus the original incidental music — is effective nonetheless.
Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t look the part of the 63-year-old salesman at the end of his rope, but he’s not afraid to play the character’s unsympathetic traits, and he’s poignant when Willy uncharacteristically realizes he’s furthering his own destruction before diving right back into it.
Linda Emond is convincing as his long-suffering wife, who endlessly tries to make sure her husband gets the respect she’s sure he deserves, even if no one else seems to believe it.
Making his Broadway debut, Andrew Garfield is game as the tortured son Biff, but he comes off actorly and overdoes the physical trait of playfully punching his brother (perhaps a Nichols touch) as well as his big screaming match with Dad.
In fact, it seems that as the play progresses, whenever there could be screaming, there will be screaming, the actors wildly overemoting when heated high whispers would have made the point more potently.
But no cell phones went off the night I saw it — the audience was rapt throughout — and the haunting moments linger:
Garfield falling apart in Dad’s arms and crying, “I’m nothing, Pop!”
Hoffman begging his boss not to discard him like fruit.
Emond killing with her final “I made the last payment on the house today” bit.
Yes, there have been better Salesmen, but this production is a solid reminder of the play’s sturdy brilliance in dissecting the dark side of the American dream.
Attention must be paid.