Compliments must be paid. Director Mike Nichols’ stirring Death of a Salesman, running on Broadway through June 2, harbors no radical agenda, no modern glosses or reinterpretations of Arthur Miller’s text. Instead, Nichols & Co. play it straight. And rarely has a classic work seemed straighter, or truer. Nichols restores key elements of Elia Kazan’s original 1949 production (which he saw as a Manhattan high schooler), including Alex North’s jazzy incidental music and Jo Meilziner’s scenic design, placing a stylized, sepia-toned version of Willy Loman’s Brooklyn house center stage.
This is no Madame Tussauds period piece, though. Nichols coaxes memorable performances from every actor — beginning with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though he’s only 44, Hoffman brings a stooped-shoulder weariness to this 60-year-old striver that is utterly convincing. As his wife, Linda Emond reveals a woman long consigned to second-fiddle status in her home despite her deep love for her husband. Andrew Garfield, nailing a Brooklyn accent, makes ex-jock Biff appropriately insecure. And Finn Wittrock finds new depths in philandering, attention-starved younger son Happy. This is the rare production with an enviably deep bench: Even seemingly throwaway roles like Loman’s boss (Remy Auberjonois) and his paramour on the road (Molly Price) make an indelible impression.
While this Salesman owes much to tradition, it pulses with energy and urgency. And with its implicit messages about the plight of the middle class, the dangers of false pride, and the valorization of superficial popularity at the expense of achievement, Miller’s play has seldom seemed so vital. A
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