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Death of a Salesman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives an award-worthy performance as Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' magnificent revival of Arthur Miller's 1949 masterpiece.

Andrew Garfield and Philip Seymour Hoffman
in Death of a Salesman
(© Brigitte Lacombe for New York Magazine)
Since Arthur Miller is unquestionably one of the greatest 20th-century American playwrights and Mike Nichols is arguably the greatest living American theater director, it's not surprising that the words which instantly spring to mind for Nichols' current revival of Miller's Death of a Salesman at the Barrymore Theatre are "magnificent" and "indispensable." Indeed, this award-winning masterpiece continues to stun and move audiences just as it did in 1949, when it debuted on Broadway under the great Elia Kazan's guidance.

The place to start the praise is with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives an award-worthy performance of infinite depth and breadth as Willy Loman, the titular salesman who has devoted an exhausting 34-year career to charming buyers on the Northeast circuit so he can instill the American dream in his sons Biff (Andrew Garfield) and Happy (Finn Wittrock), while long-suffering wife Linda (Linda Emond) lingers deferentially.

From Hoffman's droop-shouldered entrance through his rages against his sons' moody reactions to him and his alternating affection for and dismissal of his wife, he's constantly mercurial. His flashes of triumph when he's kidding himself about the unmoored Biff's prospects and the pangs of disappointment when confronted with realities he refuses to face add up to a sublime actor's compendium of techniques.

In addition, Hoffman's use of his voice -- flat now in despair, charged now with false pride -- and his physicality are the sources of the variety he brings to the portrait of an Everyman at the end of his frayed tether, including during the key sequences where he's alternately imploring and demanding his dismissive boss Howard (Remy Auberjonois), his sympathetic next-door neighbor Charley (Bill Camp), and his brother Ben (John Glover) whom he repeatedly conjures as part of several nocturnal debates with himself.

Another facet of Nichols' magic touch is that Hoffman never upstages the other actors, all of whom have multiple moments to command the stage. For example, in one of the scenes where Willy is elsewhere, Emond unrelentingly chastises Biff and Happy for disrespecting their father.

Initially, it may seem as if Garfield is too slight of frame to be fully believable as former football idol Biff, but if you think of him as a once outstanding quarterback, it works -- especially in Garfield's final emotional exchanges with Willy. Indeed, Nichols has made certain the entire ensemble is flawless, including Fran Kranz as nerd-next-door Bernard who matures into a lawyer about to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Interestingly -- and is turns out, wisely -- Nichols pays homage to Kazan by replaying Alex North's original background music and reproducing Jo Mielziner's original impressionistic set with its suffocating urban-environment backdrop.

The terrible beauty at the core of Death of a Salesman is Miller's understanding that the hopes of fathers have only a questionable success when visited on sons. While Willy wants only the best for his children, his imposing of his unexamined wishes has the effect of stifling them. The results are heartbreaking in a way that Nichols profoundly comprehends and completely realizes.