Monday, May 7, 2012

Attention Must Be Paid

Review: Death of a Salesman
Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman
On rare occasions, a piece of theatre will leave you so profoundly affected that finding words to describe what you feel proves difficult.  The writing, direction, and performances all combine and send you into a momentary stupor as your brain attempts to process the depth of what you’ve just experienced.  You remain in your seat after the lights come up, hoping that by lingering in the theatre you’ll be able to enjoy its transcendent nature just a while longer.  The knockout revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is such a piece of theatre.

Miller’s script is such an acknowledged masterpiece that it’s easy to forget just how incredible his writing truly is.  This portrait of aging salesman Willy Loman uses incredibly specific characterizations to reveal something universal about the human experience, and it’s themes of shattering disappointment and unfulfilled potential remain timely over sixty years after its premiere.  Seeing a man who has poured his entire life into a company unceremoniously dismissed strikes an especially potent chord in our post-recession economy.  And in a society where adolescence has stretched into a person’s mid-twenties and beyond, Miller’s parallel tale of the arrested development of Willy’s two sons is instantly recognizable.
But a play, even a great one, does not perform itself.  And for this latest Broadway revival, director Mike Nichols has assembled a cast equal to the monumental potential of Miller’s script.  Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman anchors this production with a tower performance in one of the theatre’s great roles, embodying Willy’s crushed soul from his first shambling footsteps onto the Barrymore Theatre’s stage.  Although considerably younger his character, Hoffman so convincingly portrays a man suffering from a lifetime of disappointment that you accept him as Willy immediately.  And while his desperation can be uncomfortably oppressive (as it should be), Hoffman peels back those years during the play’s flashback sequences to offer a glimpse of the great man everyone claims Willy used to be.  Hoffman’s contribution to the success of this production cannot be ignored, and anyone interested in seeing a true master at work owes it to themself to see him in this role.
Hoffman is more than ably supported by his costars, particularly Linda Emond.  As Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda, Emond takes a character type that has become cliché and invests it with such conviction that it seems new again.  While you completely understand and sympathize with Linda, you cannot pity her because Emond makes it clear she doesn’t want to be pitied.  Of the characters in the play, Linda is the most at peace with the family’s current situation, which only makes her final monologue all the more heartbreaking.  The play would lead you to believe that Linda has little left to lose, and yet by the end you know that she had everything to lose, and now that it is gone she is will likely never recover.
And then there is Andrew Garfield, a promising young film talent making a phenomenal Broadway debut as Willy’s son Biff.  Garfield is also too young for his role, but just like Hoffman he makes you forget that fact in seconds.  Biff’s tragedy is that he knows exactly what’s wrong with him and yet is powerless to change, and Garfield communicates that conflict flawlessly.  Resentful of the expectations placed on him by his father and filled with guilt over his inability of meet them, Garfield’s Biff is a cornered animal, dangerous and likely to lash out at any moment.  His scenes with Hoffman are simply electric.
Mike Nichols has guided his cast to perfectly pitched performances, ensuring the play moves inexorably towards its final conclusion.  So expertly paced is the piece that although it never drags, it never feels rushed either, with each revelation being afforded the proper dramatic weight.  The sublimely understated sets, costumes, and lighting keep the focus squarely on the human drama at the play’s center, allowing Nichols and his actors to do their work unimpeded.
This revival of Death of a Salesman is an affirmation of the incredible power live theatre can wield, and is an event that only comes around once in a great long while.  A great production of a great play, it simply cannot be missed.

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