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3/23/12

A Saleman's Death Is My...Entertainment

Revivals of any show warrant a question worth pondering…why a revival?

One thing I take into consideration…relevance. Every season, when a slew of revivals hit The Great White Way, how much they fit in this place and time weighs in on the overall experience. Revivals, in general, tend to be a Greatest Hits of theater...so they were great at one point. But in 2012, do you want to see a show that was great some six or seven decades ago, as theater continues to evolve?

Your mileage can vary on that question; I myself don’t mind a ‘classic’ show or at least one suspended in the era it was made. Some shows may even have a timeless quality that makes them worthwhile in any year. What you can expect nowadays is some update or modernization in a revival to appeal to the newer generation(s) of theatergoers. The results range anywhere from terrible to fantastic.

Death of a Salesman, currently playing at the Barrymore Theater, successfully passed every question a revival poses. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Arthur Miller, one of his most well-known novels, this production achieves the distinction of being classic and relevant under any circumstance. It is, and always has been, a fantastic gem of literature and one that translates so well to the stage…why change what works when it always benefited of being a product of its time?

That is why, at least how I see it, this revival is meticulously timed. Taken on its own, I enjoyed the nostalgia of having read the original novel in high school just as my interest in literature started to incline. Yes, in case you are wondering, I was “that guy” who actually enjoyed getting my reading on during and after school hours. Oh, lunch time in the library…that certainly brings me back.

But I can’t be the only one whom has a connection to any version of Salesman or the source material itself. Whether it is the novel, some live production or even the 1980’s television movie starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich (both in Emmy-winning turns as Willy and Biff Loman respectively), this production is brilliantly crafted and stands alone regardless of anyone’s exposure. Oh sure; I recall lines and scenes from reading the original novel and that excited me greatly (and surprised me at how much I remembered)…but that might not apply to you and that is more then okay.

Passionate, dramatic, emotional…also known as my trifecta of theater awesomeness…this revival of Salesman blew my mind in more ways then I could ever have imagined. When it comes to being relevant, the show effectively challenges the ideals of the mid-20th century suburbia family, even before that type of cynicism towards the “American Dream” started roaring its head. Willy’s plight of paralysis in a travel-filled, unengaging sales job. Linda’s tumultuous relationship with Willy in the wake of finding the gas pipe rigged for a suicide attempt. Biff repeating the cycle of failure as he cannot even hold on to a job, if he even gets one with his huge ego in stow. I think everyone can relate to these characters as we endure our depression-filled, recession-infested society; if not, we at least know handfuls of people struggling with that type of depression, monotony or unemployment/job downgrading.


But let’s be honest…it has a big name cast and while I had other, more noble reasons to see the show, the cast was worth getting up at 6:30 in the morning for rushing the show. Like I was really was going to miss Philip Seymour Hoffman perform? In person? Playing one of the most iconic characters of all-time? Oh please…who do I have to kill? Thankfully, I circumvented that idea…for now.

But before I highlight the top talents of the production, Hoffman included (obviously), let’s highlight some other casting choices. I am happy to report there was only one odd casting decision that I can’t cosign on to…the actor playing Happy Lohman, Finn Wittrock, looked wayyyy (four “y”s; count ‘em) older then Andrew Garfield’s Biff Lohman. That issue did undermine Wittrock’s otherwise decent portrayal because Happy’s doe-eyed “my big brother is my hero and we’re going to conquer the world” naïve optimism was not going to pan out in the execution with such an age-oriented casting mistake. It looked pretty apparent to me unfortunately…

But I can't get too crazy over casting because the actors need to be apt for flashbacks some 12+ years earlier to present day. That is pretty difficult when casting someone who looks early thirties to also look...what, fifteen with the right styling. The same could be said for Garfield's Lohman...so it goes.

What else? Well, Dollhouse fans – namely, myself and a few other Joss Whedonholics – are happy to see Fran Krantz give a solid performance as the underwritten Bernard (not a criticism, mind you). Linda Emond is there as Linda Lohman, going about her internalizing emotional ways as means of coping with her husband’s downfall. She did not really capture my attention, and this is not the first time. This is the second production I’ve seen her in (the other was Intelligent Homosexuals Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to Scriptures) where her acting is competent, but she gets shown up by the far more interesting characters and the actors who play them.

Enter Hoffman and Garfield, the former is really great (unsurprisingly) and the latter is flawless (surprisingly).

The former nailed Willy’s shtick down pat by playing the jaded misanthrope on the verge of destruction very grounded and honest. Hoffman struck that perfect balance by cleverly building up the anticipation of a full-on breakdown, but also providing some apt self-assurance of going through the motions to get by…we really buy that Willy was on his last lifeline without any sort of obvious pandering. From start to finish, we are along with Willy for the ride with emotional payoffs and sympathy at every twist and turn.

Will the artistic genius using B&W photography
for the show's promo materials please come forth?
Job well done!
Don’t even get me started on when Willy and Biff are on stage together…watching the drama play out between the two most interesting characters, couple that with the two best actors in this production (well, most productions really), is incredible. Garfield especially, who stunned the fu** out of me. Remember, this is the guy from The Social Network. Not that he wasn’t great there - he was - but I have never seen him in anything otherwise that would indicate how amazing he is. He straight-up Arianda-ed the show. In fact, if I saw Salesman before Nina Arianda’s show stopping turn in Venus in Fur, I would have said that Arianda Garfield-ed her performance.

I love turning actors names into verbs.

In short, Garfield’s performance knows no resistance or boundaries. Pure, un-hinged, balls to the walls, fearless, relentless aggression and emotion for days (which is perfect because this is Broadway). I am not being even a little subtle about this. From the consistent accent to the moments of catharsis when he unleashes everything he’s got, which seems like 30 years of pain and anguish, into a scene. When he pulls out the gas pipe in an attack of his father's character, I gasped audibly. Seriously, does he have some troubled past that he taps into when performing? Just curious…the performance is so spot-on and authentic, when it could have been over-the-top and narm-ey, that Garfield deserves all the credit in the world for you know…ACTING. The beauty of sitting in the box seats for this show is that when I began crying during one of his more emotional scenes (don't laugh), I turned and saw most of the audience in the orchestra doing the same. The fact that he nailed an impossible combination – bombast and restraint selectively – is why people should turn out for this show. There are numerous other reasons mind you, but Garfield was far and away my favorite aspect.

To show you how much I loved this production as a whole, consider the following…my best friend Kay (Remember her? Hilarious, witty, intelligent Connecticut friend o’ mine) is coming to visit me soon in New York and other then taking her to the obvious choice of The Book of Mormon, I am trying to fit this show into our 24 hour-ish itinerary. That is how much the show is worth it – that I am willing to give up a few hours of my BFF time, who I am lucky to see once or twice a year for a day or so, to take in this show with her. Congratulations Death of a Salesman…you earned my impending return. Not many shows earn that mark and those that do, tend to be musicals. Need I say more…

Photo Credit: ShowBiz411.com
Photo Credit: ChicagoTribune.com

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