Shows Worth Seeing:
Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
To me, the greatest marvel in this Salesman, the play’s
fifth Broadway production, directed by Mike Nichols, is the way
it reinforces the criticism of the play that most rankled Arthur
Miller, and then makes the point seem like a virtue. I’m
speaking of the objection (voiced by sophisticated critics from
1949 on) that Willy Loman is basically a pathological case—a
mentally unhinged man sinking into fantasy and self-destruction
and therefore a poor proxy for the average American working stiff.
The half-dozen Salesmans I’ve seen (including those
starring Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy) have sidestepped this
issue by shading Willy toward the reasonable and sensible until
the very end. Some have gone further and given him a vaguely “leftist”
strident edge obviously intended to reinforce the play’s
reputation as a gutsy political allegory about the cruelties of
Mike Nichols, bless him, has directed the play Miller actually
wrote, rather than the one he said he wrote, and his lead actor,
Philip Seymour Hoffman, flourishes unforgettably under these circumstances.
Hoffman is beefy rather than flabby (like Dennehy) and thus wholly
believable as the former athlete Willy’s sons admire, and
he uses that physicality as a ground for the character’s
other aspects—commission-man dogsbody, bad friend, insensitive
husband. More important, his distraction as Willy is intensely
vivid and specific, shifting between boisterous bonhomie, dismal
anomie, fits of ineffectual scrappiness, pathetic pleading, and
much, much more. This is a sinking vessel from the beginning,
and though that ought to be depressing, it’s actually exciting
because Hoffman makes his journey so clear and palpable: one man’s
losing struggle to free himself from an eddy of his own delusions.
Place whatever leftist overlay you like on that struggle. It’ll
surely fit fine because the massive weight of the play’s
history makes us want to see it in those terms. The brain-wave
of Nichols, Hoffman and company was that they didn’t need
to be responsible for it.
By Nicky Silver
138 W. 48th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
I’ve never been sure how seriously to take Nicky Silver,
mostly because I’ve never been sure how he takes himself.
This is an author who trades on snotty, gay backbiting humor,
and for better or worse, he’s good at it. Back in the 1990s,
I had hoped that his glibness would prove a prelude to a more
mature and substantial comic vision. His psychologically flimsy
plays (The Food Chain, Pterodactyls) were stylishly perverse,
but with the straw-figure caricatures and contrivances of The
Altruists (2000) I finally had enough and abandoned him for
a while. Now I find myself wondering again whether his unrelentingly
bitter bitchiness might betoken a profound misanthropy after all.
Silver’s view of humanity is bottomlessly dim, as dim as
Pinter’s or Jarry’s, and with this new play, The
Lyons, he has found a truly discomfiting dramatic canvas
for it. Moreover, he may at long last have quipped himself into
real subversiveness, since this is his first foray on Broadway.
The Lyons is a family drama whose mainspring is the death
from cancer of the foul-mouthed, nasty-tempered father. No one—his
wife (perfectly cast with Linda Lavin), his two grown kids—regards
this event with the requisite sentimentality or gravity—a
circumstance that could easily have turned into an occasion for
mere sitcom-ish wisecracks. Instead, the family members all turn
out to be insightful and persuasive studies in self-destructive
narcissism. They crack wise, but each one is a monster, a different
sort of prodigy of self-involvement painted with no more apology,
comment or condemnation than Ubu was, even though none of them
is caricatured. Every laugh in the two-hour show sticks in the
throat, because what’s going on is so horrible, and you
can feel the audience shifting uneasily even as it guffaws to
prove how much it’s enjoying its expenditure. This unsettled
atmosphere is well worth witnessing.