The Book of Mormon is a near-impossible ticket, long-running shows like Wicked and Jersey Boys are still packing them in, but the one undisputed new hit of the Broadway season is, strangely, that old dramatic warhorse, Death of a Salesman. Even stranger, it’s a Death of a Salesman without one certified box office star. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Willy Loman in this revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, is one of our most acclaimed actors, and an Oscar winner for Capote, but no one has ever mistaken him for Reese Witherspoon. And while Andrew Garfield, as his tormented son Biff, made a mark as one of the people screwed by Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, his real big-screen breakthrough — as Hollywood’s next Spider-Man — is still months away.
Mike Nichols’ new production of Salesman, moreover, had me grumbling from the get-go. I didn’t mind Hoffman’s relative young age for the role of Willy (Hoffman is 44; Willy supposedly in his 60s), but he struck me as too slouchy and hangdog, with line readings so flat and matter-of-fact that it made me wonder how he got this far in the business world. His Willy Loman doesn’t sound like he could sell anybody anything.
The supporting cast is a little off as well. Linda Emond, as Willy’s faithful wife Linda, seems too vibrant and self-assured to have been sucked in by his bluster all these years. And Garfield is awfully young and delicate-looking for the disillusioned, 30-ish, former all-American boy Biff. When, in a flashback to his glory days as a high school athlete, his nerdy friend Bernard (Fran Kranz) pleads to carry some of his gear to the big game, it almost plays as a joke. Comb Bernard’s hair a little differently, and the roles could just as easily have been reversed.
And still, this Death of a Salesman scores. Partly because Nichols has paced the actors to get the most out of the brutal climactic scenes, which are as powerful and emotionally withering as I’ve ever seen them. When Garfield, in particular, is torn between his determination to confess the truth about his failed life to Willy, and an alarmed recognition that to do so would destroy him, the quicksilver battle of emotions almost takes your breath away.
But the truth is, Death of a Salesman nearly always scores. What this flawed production proved, for me, is that Miller’s play really is the Great American Drama.
It’s certainly the one I’ve had more encounters with than any other. I saw George C. Scott play Willy Loman on Broadway in the 1970s; Dustin Hoffman deliver his quirky, bantam-rooster take in the ’80s; and Brian Dennehy do a workmanlike job in the ’90s. I have vague memories of catching Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy, reprise the role on TV back in the ’60s, and can even recall an amateur production in my hometown of Kansas City, starring an actor whose voice was a bit too distracting because, alas, it was so familiar from local commercials.
Yet the actor who really defined the role for me was Frederic March, in the 1951 movie version. The film was a box office failure, and Miller himself hated it, partly because he felt March turned Willy into a lunatic rather than a victim. Yet March, the aging Hollywood matinee idol, seemed to both elevate Willy the highest, and bring him crashing down the hardest — the most anguishing and yet appealing Willy Loman of them all.
Whether with March thundering or Hoffman underplaying, however, the play is indestructible. For one thing, it is impeccably constructed: Still striking is how much action and revelation, with so little strain, Miller packs into a single night and day. Its stylistic twists — flashbacks interspersed with current action — are overused devices now, but have never been done with more finesse. And Miller’s language really does have poetic resonance, not just the famous lines (“Attention must be paid”), but the bits of dialogue that evoke whole value systems — as when Willy marvels that Bernard is going to argue a case before the Supreme Court. (Willy: “The Supreme Court! And he didn’t even mention it.” Charley: “He don’t have to — he’s gonna do it.”)
But mostly, it’s the great American play because it so deftly uses a fairly conventional family drama to expose all our insecurities about the American dream. The scene in which Willy, cracking up and desperately pleading for an office job, is cruelly tossed aside by his boss is one of the most painful in all of American drama — because it is so hard to argue with. Willy isn’t good at his job any more; under the rules of American capitalism, he deserves to be fired. (His friend Charley, who keeps offering him a job out of charity, is the real outlier.) Willy learns too late that he’s an unwitting participant in a game where winning is the unattainable dream, losing the all but preordained outcome.
Who knew? Death of a Salesman is The Hunger Games of 20th century American drama. But it will last longer.
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Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America