NEW YORK — One must pay attention to a man even as inattentive as the loutishly bewildered Willy Loman, whom Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays so effectively in director Mike Nichols’s steel-girded Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” which officially opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
In concert with Andrew Garfield’s embittered Biff, the drifting elder son of the defeat-racked Loman household, Hoffman finds a revealing new way into the psyche of a character Arthur Miller introduced 63 years ago as the damaged end-product of a system that leaves workers to sweep up after the ashes of their dashed hopes.
At 43, the Oscar-winning Hoffman may not yet be able to embody the physical baggage of a man in deep middle age eroded by disappointment and the punishing reality of a withering job. But in Willy’s abject refusal to acknowledge what everyone around him can plainly see — and just as importantly, declines to force him to face — Hoffman underlines a striking facet of the role. His Willy is no giant. He’s a bully with an intimidating temper, a man who growls and barks and shouts over any voice uttering a message in contravention of his own illusions, over his son’s greatness and his own business prowess. He’s as much victimized by ethical blindness as he is by a company that uses up its employees.
“Salesman,” staged by Nichols as a galvanizing roundel of passionate flare-ups, charts Willy’s precipitous decline, as the firm he’s exhaustingly gone on the road for all his adult life concludes that he’s obsolete. The scene in which he’s fired by the new boss (Remy Auberjonois) will strike a chilling chord with anyone connected to anyone else who’s ever had to take that devastating meeting with a representative from HR.
The play is also a moving account of how one man’s pain can spread like a disease to those around him, although in this version, one senses that Willy’s family fails him nearly as much as he fails them. The consoling of his battered pride by his dutiful wife, Linda, played here by the stoically efficient Linda Emond, proves to be a softer, inadvertent administration of poison. Utterly dependent on and devoted to Willy, this Linda unwittingly encourages his worst instincts by appealing to his better ones. For what we and Biff know — and she doesn’t — is that fidelity goes only one way in this marriage.
Garfield, who distinguished himself playing a Facebook co-founder in “The Social Network” — and is Hollywood’s next Spider-Man — asserts in his Broadway debut the bona fides of a stage actor of note. Biff, the ne’er-do-well Willy tries to believe in to the bitter end, is in Garfield’s jaw-set rendition both a mirror and a rejection of Willy. He’s inherited his father’s moral confusion; not for nothing does he absent-mindedly steal a pen from the desk of a prospective employer.
But this Biff is also without any of Willy’s illusions. And the explosion that occurs when the son at last decides that shattering the old man is the only way he can survive takes on a power that one rarely experiences. Invoking the words that ring with pitiable authority — “I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!” — Garfield spits the speech out, raging, in Hoffman’s face. It’s shocking, terribly sad — and just right.
Finn Wittrock’s swaggering Happy, Willy’s perpetually overlooked younger son, rewardingly completes the dysfunctional Loman rectangle, and Bill Camp makes an outstanding contribution as Charley, the generous neighbor who thanklessly keeps an eye out for Willy’s interests. Like all of the Lomans’ best-laid plans, this one tragically goes for naught.
(Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Mike Nichols. Set, Jo Mielziner; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Scott Lehrer. With Fran Kranz, Molly Price, John Glover, Glenn Fleshler. About 2 hours 45 minutes. At Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.)