Death-Defying Acts

If the pen cannot give a tragic hero sufficient weight, perhaps the scales can. The first and superb Willy Loman was Lee J. Cobb, of great talent and considerable avoirdupois to make his fall reverberant. He contributed in no small measure to the success of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which returns to Broadway with Brian Dennehy, a potent actor weighing even more than Cobb and twice as much as our last Willy, Dustin Hoffman.

Miller put his finger on our prime weakness: a gullibility to the wiles of salesmanship. “I sell, therefore I am” is the neo-Cartesian maxim Willy is meant to embody and explicate. Rightly, Miller embeds this value system in a business, social, and family context, but the interaction of the elements is achieved more by contrivance than by a sense of the inevitable. Moreover, the language tends to lack the poetic heightening tragedy requires. What are we to make of “Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory”? The original production also owed a lot to Elia Kazan’s rapturous staging.

Robert Falls’s mounting is very different. For starters, there is no cityscape, and Richard Woodbury’s alternately thunderous and jazzy music is far from the fluty and elegiac one Miller stipulated and Alex North delivered in 1949. Falls has made minor adjustments in the text, but Mark Wendland’s décor departs radically from Jo Mielziner’s original. It is much less realistic, with more black, empty space, a busy turntable, translucent sliding panels. Falls adds oblique lighting (by Michael Philippi) that casts venetian-blind shadows, enhanced and echoing sound, overlapping dialogue, characters in consecutive scenes simultaneously visible, and a Loman house more fluidly expressionist with fewer details.

This does not, of course, elicit more tragedy, though it makes the melodrama, which the play essentially is, spookier, more hallucinatory, startling. But the cards are too neatly stacked against a Willy hurtling out of control; his heroically struggling wife, Linda; and his elder and sensitive son, Biff, as opposed to the younger, happy-go-lucky Happy. Opportunities let slip, hopes for the future dashed, attempts at family rapprochement regularly misfiring, and one of the unlikelier cases of kleptomania are just a few of the Lomans’ problems.

Yet most of the acting is splendid. Dennehy is a man truly at the end of his tether, letting us in on every step of his decline via naïve optimism, disregard of reality, aging, and capitalist callousness. He is a bull slowly wrestled down in some terrible tauromachy. Elizabeth Franz, after a bit too much tremolo and head-waggling, settles into a quietly and thoroughly moving Linda. Kevin Anderson welds Biff’s duality as unmoored drifter and canny raisonneur into a totally believable and heartrending amalgam. Only Ted Koch’s Happy is a bit lacking in the necessary dumb appeal. In the competent supporting cast, Howard Witt’s Charley is outstanding. This Salesman is a hard but efficacious sell.

Death-Defying Acts