By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
In his Academy Award-winning role as Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman created one of America’s most flamboyant and contradictory characters with startling intensity. Now as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” Hoffman portrays yet another role in which inner contradictions defy reason. Early in the play, Willy tells Linda (Linda Emond) that the trouble with their son, Biff (Andrew Garfield), is that “he’s lazy, goddamit.” Only to emit within seconds, “There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.” That he ends his life at the point where their mortgage is paid up and life is “free and clear” is the ultimate paradox.
As Willy, Hoffman glides through the character’s inconsistencies unflinchingly. For Willy, The Salesman, is not truly defined by himself, but by other people’s goals, their needs and their reactions to him. Always a dreamer, Willy, now ageing and fading from the world of commerce, pushes reality further and further away. And having set his sites on some vision of the future, while still living in the past, he comes to realize that he feels “kind of temporary.” Hoffman captures the emotional flow of the character, hitting the high notes with vibrato.
But even more remarkable is his ability to exist in both the present and the past simultaneously. Miller wrote “Death of a Salesman” to take place within the course of 24 hours, and within that compressed timeframe Willy’s bewildered mind conjures scenes from his earlier years as though he were in a dream. The seemingly disparate conversations with different characters in different periods of time coexist almost concurrently. Hoffman plumbs the subconscious with such finesse that these scenes flow seamlessly, reflecting Willy’s disturbed and oscillating mind.
At 44, the 63-year-old Salesman is an unusual role for Philip Seymour Hoffman to take on. In fact, Lee J. Cobb who originated the role on Broadway is the only actor of note to have played the role at a younger age. And while Hoffman captures the heavy, leaden gait of this disenfranchised man, the actor’s own reactions sometimes appear too adept and intellectually sprightly for a man of Willy’s declining years. Nor is his version of a Brooklyn accent believable. He sounds here more like the priest in “Doubt,” a role he created on film, unlike a Jewish old man, which Willy arguably is.
But there are far more crucial elements at work here. As helmed by Mike Nichols, the psychological reality of these characters and their relationships feel tragically real and immediate. Even Linda Emond, as Willy’s wife, creates a credible and sensitive character. Rather than appearing absent for her lack of identity, because Miller in this case did not write a fully developed female character, she comes across as truly concerned for Willy, and loving.
As Biff, a young man who “is lost in the greatest country in the world,” Andrew Garfield flounders in confusion. His sense of existential meaninglessness goes right to the point of the character and the play. Equally fascinating is John Glover, Willy’s brother Ben, whose inflated recitation of the American Dream appears out of Willy’s consciousness in flashbacks. Bill Camp as the neighbor Charley who always tries to help and Fran Kranz as his son Bernard, who captures the reality of the American Dream as he fulfills his own expectations, uphold a sense of righteousness. And Molly Price, the woman with whom the traveling salesman carries on in a Boston hotel room, quickly grows from playful to vulgar. When we meet her wearing the gift of new stockings from Willy, Linda sits quietly in the shadows behind mending the stockings she doesn’t afford to replace.
Nichols mines these scenes for their full theatrical effect. That he is less effecting in capturing the lyricism of the dialogue sometimes leads to scenes that feel talky. Indeed, it would be difficult to wed the conversation of an uneducated Salesman with Miller’s lofty aphoristic language. But in it also lies the life of the play.
That Arthur Miller’s take on the deception of the American myth of success is the hottest ticket on Broadway is deservedly the case. To Willy Loman and his contemporary compatriots, “attention must be paid.”
“Death of a Salesman” is at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm. For tickets call 212-289-6200 visit Tellecharge.com or go to the box officeelecharge.com or go to the box office.
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe