After Mike Nichols’ last Broadway production, a 2008 revival of Odets’ The Country Girl, was excoriated by many critics, the director, by his own admission, spent many a moment determining what went wrong. The soul-searching pays off, magnificently, in his scorching new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
When the cast for this 1949 play was announced last year, the advance Twit Crit – snarky tweets and blog postings – was relentless. Even though Lee J Cobb, the original interpreter of the 60-year-old salesman Willy Loman, was 37 at the premiere, the digerati asked: wasn’t the 44-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman, the current Willy, too young for the role? Wasn’t it daft to think that Linda Emond, as his wife Linda Loman, could efface memories of Elizabeth Franz in the role during the previous Broadway revival, in 1999? And wasn’t Andrew Garfield, as their elder son Biff, marring his march to movie stardom by decamping to live theatre? (He’s the title arachnid in this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man.)
The answers to all these questions is no. To convey the breakdown of Willy, who is spiralling out of his job as an on-the-road salesman of 34 years, Hoffman drains his voice of variety, to harrowing effect. Initially, I missed the ironic inflections the actor has brought to his movies, where, even in a flop, he stands out. But the ironies of Salesman are painful not lilting: the biggest one, of course, being that this story of failure in business became one of the most successful plays in US history.
Like Hoffman, Emond is not about to violate this modern-day tragedy with fussy stage business. She provides the first act, in which Biff and his brother Happy have returned home to witness their father’s alarming retreat into the past, with its most powerful moment: the speech in which she insists that “attention must be paid to such a person” as her husband.
Until the end of this production, which recreates Jo Mielziner’s original three-level 1949 set and uses Alex North’s original music, I wasn’t sure that Garfield would be able to scale the heights of Biff’s climactic truth-telling to his father’s face. In the restaurant scene, he and Hoffman and Finn Wittrock (as Happy) abandon the type of restraint that heightens emotion. The scene ratchets up too quickly. But I needn’t have worried: in the end, Garfield confronts Hoffman spectacularly.
The ultimate credit, however, as always, belongs to Miller, who said that with this drama he found a way at last “to speak at full throat”. Death of a Salesman remains the only play that – whether the production is middling or magnificent – never fails to move me. Sometimes, as in this staging, I am also shattered.