Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On "Death of a Salesman"

I once heard a talk by the Artistic Director of one of the country’s largest and most respected children’s theatres. One of the great benefits of writing for kids, he said, was the response of the audience. “For children,” he said, “theatre is not an aesthetic experience. It’s just an experience.” 

Those words came to mind after I saw the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman last month. However great most theatrical experiences are – thrilling or funny or heartbreaking – they usually are, for me, aesthetic experiences. I have an amazing time, leave the theatre elated, and relish it for days afterward. This production of Death of a Salesman, however, felt qualitatively different. It wasn’t like I’d seen something. It was like something had happened to me.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to explain. I think I have failed, for the most part, when describing it to my friends. I attempt to relay the depth of the experience through anecdote, mentioning the two times I had to make a conscious effort to pull myself together so as to not completely dissolve in tears. I don’t think what I say has much impact. Superlatives are thrown around so casually these days (“AMAZING!” “INCREDIBLE!  “BRILLIANT!” “GENIUS!” ) it is nearly impossible to cut through the fog when something truly singular comes along. 

The closest I can get, I suppose, is to simply relate what I felt like leaving the play. It was late on St. Patrick’s Day, my least favorite day of the year in New York City. As I walked from the theater to Penn Station with my wife and my mother, we dodged pools of vomit, loutish men screeching at cowering women, and every other variety of misery that alcohol can inflict on humanity. We barely said a word. There was a kind of shocked silence between us. It’s what happens when experience exceeds the ability to describe it.

The source of the production’s greatness is manifold, but I think top kudos go to Mike Nichols. Until I saw this, I had been of the thought that Nichols has been trading on past glory for years. While his accomplishments are unassailable (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), the number of completely anonymous projects he has put his name on in the last 20 years (Closer, Wolf, Regarding Henry) is legion. 

Let me take this opportunity to remove my foot from my mouth and officially withdraw any statements I may have made questioning Mr. Nichols’ talent. I don’t pretend to know what he did to achieve what he achieved in this production of Salesman, but he somehow got the naked, bleeding, awful, compassionate heart of the play out on to that stage. It’s an astonishing piece of work. 

The actors are amazing as well. Linda Emond is, as always, extraordinary. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is truly magnificent in the iconic lead role. 

I make no bones about my partisanship for Hoffman. I have seen him onstage and onscreen, in large roles and small, in comedy and drama, for almost 20 years. He is the best I have ever seen. But my particular affection and admiration for him come not just from his virtuoso talent, or the marvelous way he has managed his career. There is something incredibly generous about Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor. Some actors are amazing craftspeople, but they keep  you at a slight, almost unnoticeable remove. Hoffman is guileless. Seeing him play Willy is not watching a Great Actor play a Great Role. Instead, you watch a hapless, somewhat dim man make mistake after mistake and completely destroy his life. People offer him help but he cannot take it. In the end all he really wants is his son’s love. When Willy says, just before killing himself, “Biff likes me! Isn’t that a remarkable thing?” it is almost too much to bear.

I won’t go on at any greater length for fear of becoming one of those overpraisers I mentioned earlier. I will just say what should be the only line of any review of this show – GO SEE IT. You can’t know what you’re missing if you don’t.

- John Yearley

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