I had the incredibly lucky opportunity to see Death of a Salesman at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway last weekend, due to my parents’ inability to see it themselves. Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1949 has been reprised by eight-time Tony Award-winning director Tony Mike Nichols. The cast features Philip Seymour Hoffman (Willy Loman), Linda Emond (Linda Loman), Andrew Garfield (Biff Loman), and Finn Wittrock (Happy Loman).
Obviously, the heavy hitter of the show is Philip Seymour Hoffman who is well-immersed in Hollywood with such films as Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, 25th Hour, Capote (for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award), and, of course, Twister. But Hoffman is no stranger to the theatre and has had Tony Award nominations for True West and Long Day’s Journey into the Night and some off-Broadway directing gigs.
The actor, who was surprisingly able to match Hoffman and maybe even supersede his performance, was Andrew Garfield. When I read the Playbill I was surprised that the lanky actor was cast as Biff, who is traditionally a burly, arrogant jock-type character. This may have been influenced by his role in the hit movie, Social Network, as the scorned best friend of Mark Zuckerberg. I even wondered if Finn Wittrock had originally been the choice for Biff, but had been outweighed by Garfield’s ability. In any event, Garfield was remarkably good as identity-confused Biff who is coming to terms with the harsh reality of who he and his father really are in life, while hating Willy for building him up as someone he is not. You could feel the chills washing over the entire audience when Biff knelt before Willy in the restaurant and tried to make him understand that he is not the glorious idol from his youth, but a degenerate thief, and that Willy and he are “a dime a dozen.” Garfield was not only convincing as Biff, but gave a powerful performance one would think is more reserved for the evening show than a matinee. You could see the veins protruding from his neck, spit flying from his mouth, and tears racing down his cheeks as he tried to make Willy see him for what he truly is so that he could finally be free of his father’s burdensome expectations. I felt as emotionally drained as Biff by the end of the play. In his Broadway debut, Garfield has proven that we can expect more from him, acting-wise, in the future than the action blockbuster payday, Spiderman.
Hoffman, well, what can I say that wouldn’t already have been obvious? He was every bit Willy Loman as Brian Dennehy once was. The dejection, the hopelessness, the listlessness, but also the bouts of delusional happiness and crippling pride – Hoffman wore these all well. As an actor, Hoffman has the elusive ability to be both soft-spoken and gentle, but explosive and intimidating at the same time. And as Willy Loman, who battles between two realities of the past’s glory and the present’s gloom, Hoffman exercised both of these abilities flawlessly. When Willy goes to his boss, Howard Wagner (whose name he claims to have chosen when his previous boss, Howard’s father, asked Willy what he thought of the name), he pleads for a position in New York so he doesn’t have to continue travelling. When Howard rejects the request, Willy explodes in frustration – the audience visibly jumped, like a mini wave.
Additional credits go to Linda Emond, whose portrayal of Linda was both believable and sympathetic. Finn Wittrock was a delight to watch as Happy and very welcomed comedic relief (if you’re familiar with the play, without Happy’s comments here and there Willy wouldn’t have been the only suicide after the play). Linda is a difficult character to watch as, from an audience’s perspective, you feel that she consistently enables Willy instead of getting him help. The same goes for Happy, who is more embarrassed by his father’s behavior than concerned. But Linda’s overwhelming love for Willy is transcendent in her speeches to the boys who should be ashamed about how they’ve treated their father. Unfortunately, Happy’s character does not have any real revelations by the play’s end, but his insistency to his mother that he’s going to “finally settle down and get married” deserve a much needed laugh.
There are a couple funny/interesting things I noticed from this production:
Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed a playwright in Charlie Kaufman’s film, Synecdoche, New York, who is directing an off-Broadway production of Death of a Salesman. I wonder if this play has been a fascination of his and something he, himself, has always wanted to perform.
Biff’s dorky high school friend, Bernard, is played by Fran Kranz who guest starred in the episode “Who Pooped the Bed?” from the FX series, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He played the lab guy who “just wanted to check out some turd.” Thought that was funny – THAT’S what I end up recognizing him from.
Molly Price who played The Woman that Willy has an affair with in a flashback did the curtain call in the same negligee she wore in her scene with Willy and Biff – which was quite some time before curtain call and plenty of time to put on a robe. However, good for her!