February 24, 2012



Although a great work of art is great forever, the relevance of a given piece to a current moment in time does tend to fluctuate.  It turns out that Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN, written 63 years ago, is so remarkably attuned to this here and now that despite its period setting, it feels more contemporary than almost any play on Broadway.

It isn’t just that the current economy is bad, or that Willy Loman, like so many middle-aged men with houses and families, is losing his job and having trouble making ends meet.  The words “the 1 percent” are never spoken in Miller’s text–that catchphrase didn’t exist in 1949–but its undercurrent is felt throughout the play.  Salesman captures the peculiar ambivalence Americans have for wealth:  Willy’s mix of disdain for and envy of his neighbor’s son Bernard, who plays tennis and argues before the Supreme Court, could be echoed by the Republicans who can’t bring themselves to vote for Mitt Romney, while Willy’s awe of his brother Ben, who walked into the jungle when he was 17 and walked out rich, evokes the admiration of ordinary people today who can’t get enough of watching the rich parade the accoutrements of their wealth and tweet their often fatuous opinions.
Perhaps fueled by the affinity between Miller’s vision of America and the world around us, the new production of Salesman directed by Mike Nichols (which is still in previews, so subject to change) makes no effort to jazz up the play or make it more “contemporary.”  Indeed, the production makes a point of recreating Joe Mielziner’s original 1949 set design, and using Alex North’s incidental score.  Nichols’ choices seem to stand for the proposition that what was disturbing and moving in 1949 can be just as powerful today–and he’s right.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Willy is also suited to our times, with a self-knowledge that breaks his own heart, and ours.  His Willy is a big man, as Lee J. Cobb was in the original show, but sunken in his heft.  Hoffman doesn’t have Cobb’s bluff, bullying heartiness:  it doesn’t come as a surprise that this Willy was never as successful as he wanted his family to believe.  There’s a desperation in him that isn’t new–he may have reached the end of his rope, but the rope has been fraying all along, and on some level, Willy has always known it.  Hoffman’s Willy isn’t just now discovering the wreck of his life; he’s just starting to acknowledging it.  
The role of Linda, Willy’s wife, is a notorious trap for preachy sentiment, but Linda Emond gives a marvelously plain-spoken, crisp reading of the part.  Andrew Garfield, as older son Biff, who can never live up to the dreams with which his father has infected him, is excellent in the flashback sequences  but somewhat problematic in the play’s present-day, not because his performance is ever less than fully thought-out or passionately performed, but for simple reasons of logistics:  Garfield is 29, and a very young 29 (as you may have heard, he’ll be spinning webs as a high-schooler in just a few months as The Amazing Spider-Man), and he’s not able to convey the world-weariness of a 34-year old character who’s been traveling a hard road around the country for the past decade.  Supporting roles, including John Glover as Willy’s idealized brother and Finn Wittrock as younger son Happy, are ably filled.
Paradoxically, this Death of A Salesman, embracing the form and style of its past, feels remarkably of the moment.  Its history lesson turns out to be a bulletin of Breaking News.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."