Liz Smith: Mike Nichols, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a Brilliant Ensemble Breathe Life Into Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”

Liz reviews Broadway’s new “must see”

“ATTENTION MUST be paid to such a person!”

That is perhaps the most famous line in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Indeed perhaps the most memorable words Miller ever wrote.

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ARE YOU one of those people who just delights in having your heart totally broken? Get thee hence and try to buy tickets for the event of the year on Broadway: “Death of a Salesman.” (Rumor has it that these rare, limited engagement ducats for the fabled Arthur Miller drama are going for the scalper’s price of $750 apiece.)

This is an almost heart-stopping play about despair, aging, false dreams of glory, hopes, hopelessness, self-delusion, pitiless pride and enabling fantasies — issues many people know a lot about whether they are at fault or events are at fault.

I realize, intellectually, it is important for the theater to keep recasting, reviving and replaying the things that have become classics. But this play, beautifully written and acted by a great ensemble, is almost too much! I knew the playwright Arthur Miller a little bit. He was always gracious, and even charming. However, his works always make me want to kill myself!

Mike Nichols, the director of this outstanding revival, is a grand and talented thinker, a great creative mind, and always knows what he is doing. He keeps telling us in interviews how “timely” Miller’s 1949 play is, and how it relates to our own current moment. He is right, as usual. Mr. Nichols is an authentic genius. There is no naysaying that. Are we strong enough, considering this, to let ourselves be emotionally killed by hopelessness and haplessness? Boy, Nichols and Miller together and these splendid actors are realists to the third dimension. When you watch a Shakespeare tragedy, for instance, you also get a little gruesome action, incredible dialogue and historical perspective.

“Salesman” slays without a trace of mercy. And I know its theme is absolutely true to the world of utter fantasy and defeat. (Most likely it is blasphemy to say this — but I thought the onstage proceedings would have benefited by half an hour of cutting.)

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NEVERTHELESS, even a peasant like me knows a masterpiece when one occurs.

The playwright, the director, and every single one of the actors are brilliant beyond belief for those of you who will get in to see this. There isn’t a performer in it to be ignored.

I predict: the play, as the best revival of the year, will win, hands down, at any and all awards. It will also win the Tony for best director, Mr. Nichols … best actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman … best supporting actor, Andrew Garfield ( of the “The Social Network” and soon “The Amazing Spider-Man”) … best supporting actress, Linda Emond … and another best supporting for the blowhard brother John Glover. (I don’t know how these actors can play these roles eight times a week, they are so demanding.)

And my favorite was the cynical realistic neighbor, Charley (Bill Camp), who is about the only person in the play with a clear head on his shoulders.

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AS I watched “Death of a Salesman” unfold at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, I recalled that I was one of the first journalists to sit with rising actor Mr. Hoffman. It was way back when he did “Flawless” as a singing drag queen, opposite Robert De Niro. Then he won the Oscar for “Capote.” I bow to no one in my admiration for Mr. Hoffman’s talent. He was fantastic when I met him, he is fantastic now.

But, acting genius aside, I just can’t stand the character of Willy Loman. Sorry! He is a victim ground down by his unrealistic imaginings, his braggadocio, his falsity, his unhinged lack of realism — a man who ruins his own life and everybody else’s.

Why is such a jerk written as a tragic hero?

I think it’s kind of sentimental to believe “attention must be paid.” But, pay me no attention. Try to get into this remarkable outing anyway. It’s certainly the serious dramatic event of the year and you won’t know what they are talking about if you haven’t seen it by the next Antoinette Perry Awards.

4 comments so far.

  1. avatar KarenR says:

    Willy Loman is not a jerk. He’s an everyman buying into the “American Dream” when that dream was at its height.

    There were a whole lot of Willy Lomans running around when the financial sector took its dump a few years ago.

  2. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    Thank you, Liz. I’ve always loathed the Willie Loman character. I thought he was a selfish jerk and never really understood what made him a hero. YOU, however, remain one of my heroes for being a gentle voice in an often loud, ugly world.

  3. avatar byro59 says:

    Love you, Liz, but if the sum total of your take on Willy Loman is that he’s a jerk, the whole point of the play has passed you by!

  4. avatar rick gould says:

    He would be an unredeeming jerk if he was played by Donald Trump–Willie Loathsome!