Monday, April 9, 2012

Winners and Losers: Death of a Salesman & The Best Man

There seems to be a new production of Death of a Salesman every decade or decade and a half, and always with an actor you wouldn’t want to miss in the role of Arthur Miller’s psychically disintegrating third-rate drummer Willy Loman. Lee J. Cobb, with Mildred Dunnock as Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda, resurrected the play when they performed it on television in 1966, recreating the performances they’d given under Elia Kazan’s direction on Broadway in 1949. (The TV version, directed by Alex Segal and featuring George Segal and James Farentino as the Loman sons, Biff and Happy, was beautifully executed.) George C. Scott gave a frightening rendition of Willy as a walking time bomb in New York in 1975 opposite Teresa Wright. Directed by David Rudman, Dustin Hoffman reimagined Willy as a distinctly Jewish little man on Broadway in 1984; everyone else in the family – Kate Reid as Linda, John Malkovich as Biff and Stephen Lang as Happy – towered over him. (The TV movie adaptation is so badly directed by Volker Schlondorff that it manages to undercut Hoffman’s amazing performance, though it preserves the power of Malkovich’s.) Robert Falls brought a production to New York from Chicago in 1999 with Brian Dennehy that scaled up the expressionistic touches; it got laudatory reviews but it was misconceived, and Dennehy was hammy and self-serious. Now we have Mike Nichols’s revival with Philip Seymour Hoffman and a recreation of the famous 1949 Jo Mielziner set. And though some people (like Ben Brantley in The New York Times) have caviled about Hoffman’s age – he’s 44 and Willy is 62 – both Cobb in the original Broadway production and Dustin Hoffman in 1984 were also much younger than the character. (Cobb was 37, Hoffman 46.) Actually Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb. The trouble is that goddamn play.

Miller was obsessed with the idea of writing a tragedy about a small man, challenging the received wisdom that tragedy has to be built, as in ancient Greek and Renaissance drama, around an immense protagonist, a protagonist of regal bearing, and so what we get in the modern age, with peewees substituting for giants, can’t be real tragedy. He needn’t have tried so hard. I don’t think many theater lovers would dispute the notion that Hedda Gabler and The Wild Duck are tragedies, or The Sea Gull and Three Sisters, or Miss Julie and The Father – or, to bring the discussion into twentieth-century American theatre, Awake and Sing!, A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day’s Journey into Night. The problem with Death of a Salesman isn’t that it doesn’t feel like a tragedy; it’s that the writing is painfully banal and that Miller also wants the play to be a critique of the American Dream, and its point of view is terribly confused. You can hear Miller’s anger but you can’t always tell whether it’s directed at the misguided values of American society that doom the Willy Lomans of the world to failure or at Willy for buying into those values. And you can’t begin to imagine what he wants us to think about Linda, Willy’s loving enabler, who is also in the position of telling off his negligent sons – and to whom Miller gives the valedictory Requiem speech after Willy finally succeeds in killing himself in his car.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield 

Miller’s master was Henrik Ibsen (he’s responsible for the adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People that is most often read and produced in the U.S.), and like Ibsen he harks back to the authors of the well-made plays that engaged nineteenth-century audiences – the same audiences that Ibsen enraged, beginning with A Doll’s House and Ghosts, by playing with the conventions of the well-made play and undermining its melodramatic assurance about how the characters ought to behave. A key element of the well-made play that Ibsen deepened was the influence of the past on the present, which displays itself in the form of sinister secrets that get revealed in the course of the narrative. Since Miller was writing in an era when Freudian psychology was infiltrating popular American culture, he and some of his contemporaries (Sidney Kingsley in Detective Story, produced on stage the same year as Salesman and filmed quite faithfully by William Wyler in 1950, comes to mind) added a modern wrinkle by making the secrets Freudian ones. “Willy, what does he have against you?” Linda asks her husband in bed after the return of their elder son Biff, the high school football hero who threw away his life in his senior year and whose latest visit home, like every previous one, has set off acrid scenes between father and son like tripped landmines. We don’t learn the answer until act two, in one of the flashbacks that haunt Willy through the play (along with fantasies in which he asks counsel of his older brother Ben, whose African diamond fortune is a significant piece of supporting evidence for Willy’s claim that in America a man can triumph beyond his wildest dreams). Biff, recruited by the University of Virginia, flunked math, so he hustled up to Boston to find his father, his hero, the man he believed capable of miracles, and beg him to talk to the teacher. There he found Willy in a hotel room with a scantily clad female buyer, and, deciding that after all his father wasn’t the sort of man the math teacher or anyone else was likely to listen to, he skulked home, burned the sneakers with “University of Virginia” printed on them in the furnace, and turned into a tormented wastrel and a thief.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman
This revelation is purest melodrama. Are we supposed to believe that at thirty-two Biff still hasn’t recovered from his eighteen-year-old discovery that his father was unfaithful to his mother? And this isn’t the only plot element that seems to become less convincing as the years go on. There’s the notion, put forth in one flashback, that Biff is such a hero among his high school cohorts that they hang around the house waiting for him to give them something to do and hop to it when he suggests that they clean up the cellar. There’s the obliviousness of Howard, Willy’s boss (who’s half his age), who trumpets the virtues of the tape recorder he’s just bought for a hundred and fifty bucks and urges Willy that he, too can’t live without one – even though he’s taken Willy off salary and expects him to live on his commission, and he has to know that Willy isn’t selling much in the brutal New England territory he’s been slaving in for years. The Loman boys arrange for Willy to meet them in Manhattan so they can treat him to a steak supper, but Biff can’t get Willy to listen to his revelation about why his latest attempt to turn himself into the big success Willy expects him to be has fallen flat, and when Willy has a breakdown in the restaurant Happy, who is more interested in the attractive woman he picked up at the next table, gets embarrassed. As a result, the boys slip off into the night. I understand that this turn of events is supposed to point up Happy’s bankrupt values (which are Willy’s fault) and Biff’s desperate anguish, but is it really plausible that these two young men would take off and leave their obviously debilitated dad yelling to himself in the men’s room? And then there’s the scene, in another flashback, where the Lomans’ next-door neighbor Charley – who spends much of the present-day (i.e., 1940s) action trying to convince Willy to take a job with him rather than borrowing money from him every week so he can pay his bills – makes fun of him for his excitement over going out to see Biff play football and tells him to grow up. Willy certainly gives his sons the wrong advice, promising the world can be theirs if only they’re well liked, but I’m not aware that there’s anything inherently childish about a father’s pride in his teenage son’s athletic achievements. But Miller always gives Charley the moral upper hand (even though, in a bizarre reversal, he lets Charley eulogize Willy in the most sympathetic terms at the end). And he underscores his point by juxtaposing this scene with one in the present day at Charley’s office where he packs his lawyer son Bernard, whom Willy always laughed at for being an egghead, off to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. That’s where Charley’s son winds up, while Biff serves a month’s jail time in Kansas City for stealing a suit. The play passes for psychological realism but the dramaturgy in these scenes is hopelessly rigged.

Director Mike Nichols
Some productions manage to transcend the play’s limitations: Alex Segal’s did and so did David Rudman’s. Nichols doesn’t, though the quarrel scenes near the ends of the two acts are gripping and Hoffman is a complete reason for seeing it. Nichols’s major contribution, I would say, is that he cast the actors in small roles brilliantly and he showcases them so that every one of them makes a strong impression (except for Remy Auberjonois as Howard, but as far as I can tell the role is simply unplayable). It’s true of Molly Price as the unnamed woman in the hotel room, with her free-flowing dirty laugh, and Glenn Fleshler, who turns the role of Stanley, the head waiter at the restaurant, into a small comic tour de force, and Stephanie Janssen as Miss Forsythe, Hap’s pick-up, with her affected high-society flirtatiousness, and of Fran Krantz as Bernard – at least in his single grown-up scene. (The teenage version of Bernard is a caricature – not Krantz’s fault.) Bill Camp is hands down the best Charley I’ve ever encountered. We can see how expertly he negotiates Willy’s tendency to take his frustrations out on him but exactly where he draws the line (when he thinks Willy is insulting him), and by contrast in the flashback scenes we see that he hasn’t yet learned how; he’s more thin-skinned. Camp gives such a fine performance that he even comes close to making that dreadful “A salesman’s got to dream, boy; it comes with the territory” funeral speech sound like it actually comes out of a real human being’s mouth and not just a writer’s pen. As Ben, the formidable John Glover – one of contemporary American acting’s great unsung performers – wears a big, bushy, frosted beard, a rumpled fedora and a tan linen suit and carries his umbrella like a walking cane. His physicality is loose and free and when he lets go of a merry laugh he seems to be aiming it into the wind. He looks and sounds like a figure out of folklore.

At first Hoffman seems to be working way too hard: the part is a bear and you get the sense that he’s huffing and puffing his way up to it. But that may be just his vocal attack, his way of dropping his lines like bricks, as if he were trying to crash through a concrete wall. It takes a while for the performance to take hold. But the intensity of his inner focus is arresting from the outset, and the way he escalates speedily to Willy’s explosions is startling – the whole room seems to go dark when he gets there, as if the force of his anguish had short-circuited every other electric current in the vicinity. He doesn’t do much with the “death of a salesman” speech early in act two (the story about the aging salesman, Dave Singleman, whose popularity and success Willy has romanticized, a story that he holds to him like an amulet). But otherwise the second act is all pay-off from the labor he’s put into act one. His moments of excited hopefulness (urging the teenage Biff onto the field to groove off the love of the crowd) are marvelous; so are the moments when his focus moves ominously off into the distance. He gets Willy’s overemphatic jokiness – his strained efforts at charisma – and his boisterousness, his bull-in-a-china-shop quality. It isn’t a poetic performance, except perhaps for the longing “How do we get back to the good times?” speech to Ben; Hoffman isn’t an especially poetic actor, which is perhaps why Brantley at the Times also thought Hoffman was miscast as Jamie in the Robert Falls revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. He wasn’t; he just got at the character in a different way than Jason Robards had in the movie version, and here he isn’t concerned with Miller’s ersatz poetry, or in the possibilities for grandstanding theatricality, which was Lee J. Cobb’s trump card. Hoffman drives himself at the role, and after a while it becomes clear that his approach is an actor’s metaphor for the character, who charges and charges at an impenetrable obstacle until he just wears down and collapses.

Finn Wittrock as Happy
Finn Wittrock’s Happy is the only other major performance that comes off. Andrew Garfield is miscast as Biff: he doesn’t look the character’s age in the present-day scenes and in the flashbacks he’s too light and rangy to suggest he could be a gifted football player. And though this young British actor carried off the role of Eduardo in the film The Social Network without straining, as Biff he doesn’t seem authentically American and the effort is obvious. (He’s the only one of the four Lomans to use a Brooklyn accent, and he lays it on with a trowel.) Garfield is a good actor but it’s a phony performance. Linda Emond has an affecting moment late in the first act when he tells her sons that she’s found evidence that Willy has been flirting with suicide, but otherwise she seems hamstrung by the part, as if she hadn’t figured out what to play and so opted to concentrated on technical problems. The clearest example is the Requiem speech. “Willy, dear, I can’t cry,” Linda keeps repeating at his grave, and only at the end, when she tells him that she’s paid off the mortgage on their house and they’re “free and clear,” does she give way to tears. The idea you get from Emond’s reading of the speech is that, goddammit, the actress is not going to cry; it’s an exercise in emotional restraint until she can give way at the end.

It’s fascinating to see a recreation of Jo Mielziner’s design for the 1949 production. Originally Miller titled the play The Inside of His Head and Mielziner had in mind an expressionistic set in the shape of a man’s skull. What he came up with next was a multi-level reproduction of the Loman family home with a scrim to stand in for the the fourth wall, and the combination of suggested realism and expressionism seems right for the style of the writing, which keeps breaking out of realism into scenes that tell us what’s going on in Willy’s mind. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting really brings the set to life when gobos of leaves play over the scrim during the springtime flashback and we get a glimpse of the idyllic, outdoor-centered family life that Willy and Biff, at different times, ache to return to – but that we know was always blighted by self-delusion and always doomed.

The Best Man is an old-fashioned three-act play by Gore Vidal that embellishes political melodrama with sharp, juicy dialogue. The setting is a presidential convention in Philadelphia in 1960 and the two front runners are Bill Russell, former Secretary of State, a middle-aged Adlai Stevenson type, a pensive intellectual who quotes Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell, and Senator Joe Cantwell, a young, charismatic Joe McCarthy type who has built a political career on the invention that organized crime is a puppet institution for the Communists. The other main characters are Arthur Hockstader, the ex-president whose voiced support for one or the other candidate would guarantee his nomination, and Alice Russell, Bill’s estranged wife (the conflict between them is Russell’s infidelities), who has agreed to reunite with him in order to help him run for president. Vidal wrote the play with actors in mind – the kind who can hold a house to attention with a combination of wit and style. Franklin Schaffner filmed it in 1964, to entertaining effect, with Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Tracy and, in a rather mysterious, wavering performance, the English actress Margaret Leighton. The last New York revival, in 2000, featured Spalding Gray, Chris Noth, Charles Durning and Michael Learned, and it wasn’t memorable. The current one – the play tends to show up during election years  – pits John Larroquette as Russell against Eric McCormack as Cantwell; James Earl Jones plays Hockstader and Candice Bergen is Alice. Hardly profound theatre, but this version is lively and enjoyable.

James Earl Jones
Michael Wilson, who also directed Enchanted April and (for the Roundabout Theatre Company) a revival of the John Van Druten play Old Acquaintance, has a talent for staging star-centered shows. The production moves efficiently, pausing briefly and strategically to usher out one character and usher in another. The first might be Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), a southern party accessory who gushes over every candidate but reminds each in no uncertain terms what the women she claims to represent do and do not like. The second might be Sheldon Marcus (Jefferson Mays), who has evidence of some black mark in Cantwell’s past that Hockstader and Russell’s campaign manager Dick Jensen (Michael McKean) hopes will counter the young senator’s efforts to decimate Russell’s bid with a report of a one-time nervous breakdown. The cast also includes Kerry Butler as Cantwell’s flirty wife and Dakin Matthews as a southern senator who, as Russell points out, has all the qualities of a dog except for loyalty. All of the actors who play these casual, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t roles, like guest stars on an old TV variety show, are enjoyable to watch, especially Lansbury, who humanizes her character, and Mays, as a terrified mouse of a man with a grudge.

Candace Bergman & John Larroquette
Larroquette has many of Vidal’s best lines, and he delivers them with the laid-back confidence of a Jack Paar. But he doesn’t have the emotional access for scenes like the one where Russell finds out that his old friend Hockstader is dying of cancer, or the emotional range to keep the performance interesting for more than one act. McCormack isn’t cast right either: he’s too much of a lightweight to make Cantwell believably sinister. But Cantwell is Vidal’s straw man – he’s such a one-track political animal, and so solipsistic, that when Hockstader drops a reference to his medical condition Cantwell doesn’t even notice – so that’s probably a compliment to McCormack. You don’t want a real actor in the part anyway; you want a bad actor you’d like to throw stones at, like Cliff Robertson in the movie. Candice Bergen brings a combination of romantic-comedy sophistication and slight world-weariness to the role of Alice; it’s a surprisingly sharp-witted piece of acting. The casting of a celebrated African American actor as a one-time president in a play set a year before the Civil Rights struggle started to heat up is very peculiar, since this is one example of color-blind casting that no one in the audience is likely to see past. If the idea is to bring the play up to date despite its 1960 time signature by reminding us we’re in the Obama era, it doesn’t work; the details of the political narrative are as often unlike our present-day elections as they are like them. On the other hand, Jones steals every scene he’s in. You wouldn’t want anyone else as the weathered, wisecracking, bullshit-proof ex-Commander-in-Chief.

The plot goes a little haywire in the last act, when, after Cantwell has succeeded in making Marcus’s evidence against him look shoddy, Russell decides to use it against him anyway. It feels as if Vidal rearranged the order of the scenes by accident. But his dialogue still draws laughs. Wilson enhances the entertainment quotient by turning the interior of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre into a replica of a convention hall (Derek McLane designed the set), with TV monitors everywhere broadcasting news coverage of the event and boater-clad ushers sporting Russell or Cantwell campaign buttons. And the indispensable Ann Roth has done wonders with the women’s costumes; Lansbury must have hooted when she saw the two peach dresses Roth had prepared for her, and when all three of the female characters are onstage together for an interview the combined outfits are such an eyeful you don’t know where to look first. The Best Man is no classic but it hands you a perfectly good time.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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