Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, Death of A Salesman—a chilling glimpse at the dark side of the American dream—has been revived many times while maintaining its reputation as one of the most pungent dramas ever crafted. But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. In a 1984 Broadway revival, Dustin Hoffman assumed a voice that made his Willy Loman come off like a nerdy version of Ratso Rizzo; I felt that the effort was so distancing, it barely proved believable. The New York Times’s Frank Rich said Hoffman was brilliant, playing the character as “the small man described in the script,” but I never bought the idea that Hoffman’s Willy could sell even a toothbrush, let alone whatever unspecified quality item Willy goes on the road to hawk.
Something inverse happened in 2012, when Mike Nichols’s production relied on acting that was too big, with Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Willy) and Andrew Garfield (as Willy’s eldest son, Biff) screaming at each other in a deafening crescendo. The production’s assets became obscured once it devolved into a shouting contest that seemed designed more to flaunt the actors’ prowess at showiness than to plumb the characters’ hurt psyches.
But between those two misfires, in 1999, Robert Falls directed a towering revival starring Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz as the spiraling Lomans. The imposing Dennehy portrayed a heart-wrenching traveling salesman whose world is crumbling—he’d wrongly believed that a smile and a handshake are all you need for true fulfillment. The petite but fiery Franz was equally brilliant, refusing to turn Linda into a stereotypical enabling wife but instead making you see how she truly loved her beleaguered Willy, delusions and all. Without gimmickry or extremism, these two zeroed in on the good intentions that can permeate even the most dysfunctional American family. Three cheers for artists who trust the material.
All three of those productions won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, proving how indestructible the work is, even in the face of evolving tastes. The latest Broadway take tosses in some new elements; they work because they underline the play’s themes rather than turn them upside down. This time, Black actors have been cast as the Lomans, a switch that pays off. Willy’s achievements now seem that much more hard-earned, not to mention fraught, with an ongoing pressure that makes his demise even more comprehensible.
When a disintegrating Willy (Wendell Pierce) tells wife Linda (Sharon D Clarke) about a bully who called him a name—prompting Willy to slug the guy—you can just imagine what that name might have been. When Willy’s boss (Blake DeLong, who’s white) fires Willy after the exhausted salesman yells at him and even dares to touch him, the racial differences feel palpable as a factor in Willy’s mounting obsolescence. Willy’s mistress—seen in hallucinatory flashbacks—is played by Lynn Hawley, who’s also white, turning their dalliances into something even more dangerous than was originally written. Even a simple line like the ironically nicknamed younger son “Happy” (McKinley Belcher III) saying of Dad, “Why, he’s got the finest eye for color in the business” takes on a whole new meaning here.
The play rests on scrutiny into what success means and how we deceive ourselves into thinking we’ve achieved it.
Director Miranda Cromwell—who’s Black and British—has said she felt little for the play until her mentor, Marianne Elliott (who directed the recent Angels in America and Company revivals and co-directed an earlier version of this production with Cromwell when it debuted in London, in 2019), urged her to change the hue of the family. And that’s not all that’s different. This revival has also added brief musical interludes—such as Willy and Linda dancing a modified Lindy in a lighter moment, and Willy’s dead brother Ben (Tony winner André De Shields), a diamond tycoon in a snazzy white suit, popping up in Willy’s mind to taunt his bro with a few bars of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The sets, by Anna Fleischle, involve a chair, a table, and window frames hanging on wires like distant but attainable memories, each one descending when need be, then disappearing again into the heavens. And when Willy’s psyche triggers a flashback, a fantasy, or a nightmare, the lighting (by Jen Schriever) and sound (Mikaal Sulaiman) create a blinding flash and a snapping sound, as if an Instamatic camera were going off to preserve—or dig up—a Kodak moment.
The play rests on scrutiny into what success means and how we deceive ourselves into thinking we’ve achieved it. Willy relies on his old memories of being popular and needed, but he can’t stave off the reality that he feels increasingly isolated, as he spirals into suicidal madness. Son Biff (Khris Davis) was a football player in high school, but he flunked math and, more traumatically, has never been the same since he caught Dad in flagrante with his lady friend. The perpetually ignored Happy is open about the degradation he experiences in his job at a department store, but still tries to pretend that his position there is more important than it really is. Both Biff and Happy have learned to steal, cheat, and lie to get a quick rise, though their deceptions always make them feel even worse about themselves—unlike their dad, who doesn’t seem to realize he’s lying to himself about his own worth until it’s too late.
The fact that Willy had damagingly unrealistic expectations for both sons is reminiscent of another bad parent, Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which premiered five years earlier than Salesman. She loved her two kids to death—almost literally. Willy’s disappointment in the boys is exacerbated by the fact that the deceased Ben is always resurfacing to remind his brother of big-time achievement (De Shields slithers in and out with style), and on top of that, Willy’s neighbor Charley (Delaney Williams) has a lawyer son named Bernard (Stephen Stocking) who’s about to try a case in front of the Supreme Court. That’s real success, not phony—and Charley barely had to do anything for Bernard to achieve it, certainly never filling his kid with puffery and crazy dreams.
But Linda will never stop puffing up Willy, in her own down-to-earth way. “I don’t say he’s a great man,” she admits to their sons. “He is not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being!” I guess the bar has been set pretty low for admiration, though Willy has always been hard-working and apparently deserves some props just for having lived. What’s more, Linda believes in Willy’s innate decency, living in willful denial of his cheating and other bad behavior.
A sort of handsome roly-poly in pinstripes, Pierce (The Wire) is first-rate in the role, his charisma and mellifluous voice perfect for someone used to ingratiating himself to strangers. But Pierce also captures Willy’s rough edges and brusqueness, as well as his angry desperation and confusion as all the lies finally explode. Clarke is such a fine actor—her Linda coming off like a part of Willy, she’s that attached—but her volcanic rage against the boys for what she considers their disrespect for Willy verges into near-sociopathic territory. Davis and Belcher III are superb as the brothers who are coming to realize they’re dead-enders who are never going to grab the pot of gold, Davis particularly impressive when he blows up at Dad in a truth-telling monologue. (Any screaming here is way more controlled and organic than in Nichols’s 2012 version.)
Just as the last mortgage payment is about to be made on the Brooklyn house, Willy can’t live there anymore. He’s dead. But attention must be paid—and it has been. This is the second-best Salesman I’ve seen, so step right up folks, and let me sell you on some tickets. ❖
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
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Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.