Thursday, March 15, 2012

Death of a Salesman: Little Boats In a Storm

Mike Nichol's production of Death of a Salesman is a practically flawless, emotionally wringing evening of theater.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock lead a tremendously strong cast of actors who seem as if they were born to play these roles.  The Arthur Miller classic feels relevant, funny, alive and devastating.  This production fleshed out the ebbs and flows of the text and gave clarity to the emotional tempest created by the father and how each family member coped and weathered that.  With a focus on the personal, this production is a powerful interpretation of the play.

Hoffman plays Willy Loman the traveling salesman whose constant dreams and big talk feed and comfort him while his ever-dedicated wife Linda (Emond) is barely holding their life together as she sees the man she has always loved start to come apart at the seems.  Returning to this house of sadness, is Willy and Linda's son Biff (Garfield) who has aimlessly wandered through the last 15 years of his life while finding work out West.  Oblivious to much of what is going on around him (or intentionally avoiding looking at it) is younger brother Happy (Wittrock) who lives on liquor, women and lies. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Willy Loman, started the show with a monotone, lifeless voice that seemed to be channeling a half-dead Dustin Hoffman but it worked in contrast with his Willy Loman the dreamer.  Every wrung-out ounce of Willy spills from Hoffman's mouth and in varying vocal intonations we can hear Willy when he is selling, when he is dreaming and when he is dying.  On many levels Willy is an unlikable character.  Hoffman does such a fine job with taking sympathy where warranted but not shying away from Willy's less desirable characteristics.  I found myself more easily and readily blaming him for his troubles.  The delusional bubble that Willy creates for himself is incredibly destructive for everyone around him and this production highlights those moments.  Willy is a man full of contradictions and Hoffman plays these up getting strong laughs from the audience. 

Emond is sparkling as younger Linda in flashbacks with an openness that is heart-breaking having already seen her Linda of "today" who is embittered and gravely disappointed in her sons.  Emond's Linda was angrier and less passive than I recall in my reading of the play.  Much like Hoffman she finds great humor in some of Linda's lines and delivers them with icy aplomb.  Though for me (and others likely disagree), her final scene was the least effective emotional beat for me.

Garfield was a total unknown quantity having never seen him on stage before.  But he is heartbreaking as Biff.  As the son whose life spun out of control and who never found his footing again, he seems to tremble in each scene with his internal suffering and the years of repressed anger, lies and frustrations.  Both Garfield and Hoffman are mesmerizing in the Boston flashback.  Garfield goes from fear, to happiness, joy, and complete destruction in a few moments.  Each emotion conveyed through the eyes of a hurt child.  Hoffman pushes on with his denial convincingly until he can no longer ignore his sons sobs.  Garfield's final confrontation scene with Hoffman is riveting and gut-wrenching.  It is staged magnificently with Garfield clutching Hoffman as a child would, prostrate at Hoffman's knees.  And in the moment where Biff seeks relief, Hoffman's delusional response is shattering.  Hoffman and Garfield have explosive chemistry and it is a painful delight to watch.

Garfield can read a little too young for the "contemporary" scenes when he is supposed to be 34 (in fact Wittrock sometimes looks older than Garfield) but he reads perfectly for the flashback scenes from high school.  Garfield's performance illustrates the shifting emotional state of Biff.  There is of course Linda's famous line about Willy being "a lonely little boat looking for a harbor."  Watching Garfield gracefully and elegantly shift from boy to man, from penitent to perjurer, was like watching a sailboat tacking into strong winds.  Each scene and each confrontation, his character is pushed and pulled in new directions and as an actor he handles these shifts effortlessly. 

Wittrock does a great job of playing the hapless, younger brother who much like his father never spends much time near the truth and is awash in contradictions.  As staged, he comes off as the oft forgettable son.  And no matter how much he tries to play into his father's wants the focus has always been Biff.  One night I saw it, Wittrock's performance of Happy's Judas moment in the restaurant in the second Act was met by audible shock in the audience.  Wittrock's performance works well with Hoffman's.  Happy's choices are nicely illustrated as shades of his father--all big talk, empty promises, and denial.  During the occasional moments Happy feels regret Wittrock suddenly turns into a guilty child before your eyes as he makes empty promises to his mother that he will marry, settle down, and stop his carousing.  The play is full of so many big moments that I think Wittrock deserves attention for these fantastic small moments. 

The rest of the cast adds to the atmosphere and tone of the piece.  Molly Price's haunting, shrill laugh is perfect and her shifting reaction in the Boston hotel room is the right amount of excited to embarrassed.  Bill Camp is great as weaselly Charley.  Fran Kranz has the difficult job of being young and adult Bernard but is successful.

Using the original orchestrations and the recreation of the original set Mike Nichols has given us a truly great production where the relationships between the characters and the psychology of the characters is front and center.  For me, that is worth the ticket price. 

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