A mere 45 years ago, after seeing Mike Nichols’s revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the great critic Edmund Wilson wrote Nichols an open letter in which he urged the then-young director to assume a leadership role in creating an American national theater. Nichols, busy with his burgeoning film career, did not pursue this proposal at the time, but his new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Barrymore Theatre) now makes me wish very much that he had. In the intervening decades, Nichols has accomplished a great deal, on stage and on film, but the quality of his accomplishment and his choice of materials has been uneven. The responsibility implied by the idea of a national theater might have made him stick to his best—and his best, as Salesman shows, is what we need as well as what we deserve.
Nichols demonstrates his affinity for the concept of a sustained tradition with a daring stroke here. Having seen Elia Kazan’s original 1949 production of Salesman as a youngster, he has re-created two of the key elements that helped give that celebrated achievement its power: Jo Mielziner’s set design and Alex North’s incidental music. Two significant points confirm that this was a wonderful idea. First, neither setting nor score shows its age; they merely seem choices a gifted artist would arrive at while grappling with a play of Salesman‘s era. The oh-so-knowing may feel that they are being asked to worship at a shrine of bygone glories, but less name-conscious theatergoers simply respond to the rightness with which Mielziner and North did their work.
The more intriguing second point is that Nichols’s choice of set and music restrict him in a variety of ways which turn out, paradoxically, to be freeing. Mielziner’s ground plan limits the spots where some scenes can be staged; North’s underscoring of some speeches compels the actors to work within a given emotional range. The restrictions don’t hamper Nichols. Within the framework laid down by Kazan, he shapes a performance that is solid and moving—often in ways strikingly different from those Kazan might have chosen.
Along with its familiarity, Death of a Salesman offers a distinctive directorial challenge: So many of its scenes invite immediate emotional reaction that building it to some cumulative effect becomes tricky. Resistance to the strong feelings it provokes has produced a backlog of critical suspicion. A realistic play that uses surreal or expressionistic tactics, a “social” drama knotty with psychological oddities, Salesman has always gotten under people’s skins in unnerving ways. Miller’s first working title for it was The Inside of His Head, and it often seems to be coming from his hero’s tormented brain directly into ours.
Portly, ploddy, a little more openly off his rocker than some previous Willy Lomans, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy is a loud, life-of-the-party guy whom you can easily imagine the buyers, and his old employer’s son, feeling glad to be rid of. Though Brian MacDevitt’s crisp lighting probably uses fewer shadowy effects than Mielziner’s original, the scenes we see, in fast, jagged fragments, are manifestly Willy’s out-of-control vision of events. Maybe it’s all a crazy dream.
Hoffman’s self-reproaching forcefulness is flanked by two unusually strong performances in secondary roles: John Glover as Willy’s brother Ben, with a sardonic smile and a devilish gleam in his eye; and Bill Camp as Willy’s sour-tongued but loyal neighbor, Charley. Willy lives in a world of men, with women as ancillaries. Linda Emond as his wife, rocklike and gently persistent, conveys the wearing effect of the perpetual struggle to make her presence felt. Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, are differently inadequate to his dreams. Nichols uses Andrew Garfield, a less technically resourceful stage actor, to point up the emotional febrility under Biff’s athletic-champ exterior. Finn Wittrock’s Happy, with his smiley, head-popping eagerness to please, seems, like Glover’s Ben, a startlingly fresh creation.
But more than any single role, Death of a Salesman is a picture—refracted, distorted, personalized—of a specific time with painful parallels to ours. By working inside that past time’s parameters, and emerging with such strongly present results, Nichols has demonstrated that it can be done: We own a tradition, and we have the right to see it constantly living and made new.