Finding New Life in `Death of a Salesman'

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 1999; Page C01

The production of "Death of a Salesman" that opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre begins with a stark, self-consciously dramatic image. A door slams open and there slumps a backlit Brian Dennehy, weighted with two enormous carrying cases, his face shadowed by his fedora, his big body draped in a coat that hangs as mournfully as a shroud. The mythic Willy Loman -- salesman, father, dreamer, loser, victim, archetypal American -- is back on Broadway, 50 years after Arthur Miller's play premiered and became an instant classic.

"Death of a Salesman" is revered because it seems to say something about the ruthlessness of American capitalism. After a career on the road, the burned-out Willy discovers that the company he served so loyally has no further use for him. But the play works onstage, and stays with people, because of the tortured relationship between Willy and his elder son, Biff (Kevin Anderson). This is the play about hating your father and loving your father and owing your father and, above all, never being good enough for your father. About letting the old man down.

Director Robert Falls has decided to focus on Biff's story as the one that drives the play. In retrospect, this seems like a simple, even obvious choice -- but in fact, I've never seen the play done like this before, and the emphasis on the son's dilemma revolutionizes it.

As a play about Willy, "Death of a Salesman" is powerful but wobbly. Is the man in his predicament because of heartless American business, or because he wasn't actually much of a salesman? Miller provides lines that support both points of view, and the result isn't a complex ambivalence but simple confusion.

All the characters talk about what a good man Willy is, but we watch him encourage his sons to cheat and steal. He'd rather mooch off his friend Charley (the wonderful Howard Witt) than accept a job from him.

When we meet Willy, he's going crazy, and we assume it's because of what life has done to him. Then there's a flashback to 16 years earlier, and he's already going crazy. The play keeps positioning itself as a tragedy about the failure of a man who's done his best, but it also keeps showing us that Willy hasn't done his best. If you try to follow Willy's story seriously at all, Miller's double-mindedness keeps it from making any sense.

Biff's story, however, makes sense and then some. He's the high school football hero who somehow never managed to make good, tormented because he's a disappointment to his father. It's not just that he was supposed to be a star in life as he was on the field: He was supposed to make up for all of Willy's failures and flaws, becoming the man he could never be. "Biff, I swear to God, Biff, his life is in your hands," Biff's brother, Happy (Ted Koch), tells him. Biff is miserably aware of this. In most productions, the knowledge and his inability to act on it destroy him. In this one, he makes peace with his own frailty. He faces the fact that he's not going to be the hero who saves his father's life. He grows up.

This interpretation not only gives the play more narrative strength, it gets around the production's biggest weakness, which is Dennehy's performance as Willy. He gives it a great try, but Dennehy's drawback as an actor is that he can't convince you he knows pain. He's very similar physically to Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role. But Cobb was a huge, wounded animal, dying from a bullet he never heard coming. There's no wound in Dennehy, no mournfulness or sorrow. He's pugnacious, an extrovert -- bulletproof. He can make Willy crazy, but he can't make us believe that he suffers.

Dennehy almost never looks into the other actors' eyes, and Anderson's performance is about trying to get in front of his gaze, to make Willy see Biff rather than his idealized fantasy of the boy. This is the most loving Biff I've ever seen -- a screwed-up man whose one saving strength is his feeling for his father. As we watch, Biff desperately tries to twist himself into a shape Willy can take comfort from. He can't do it. He snaps. Anderson, who is terrific throughout, becomes very quiet at this point, resigned rather than beaten. His failure finally sets him free.

Willy's wife, Linda, is played by Elizabeth Franz as a frail, gentle creature who buffers Willy with her tenderness to keep the hard world away. It's a great performance. So is Witt's sardonic, fatalistic, warmhearted Charley -- Willy's best friend, who doesn't even much like him. And so is Kate Buddeke as the vulgar, cheerful woman Willy beds in a hotel room.

"Death of a Salesman" is often referred to as a tragedy, but it isn't. We don't feel pity and terror at Willy, just pity: He's a figure of pathos. It's a resonant pathos, though. To the extent that the play deserves its reputation as a masterpiece, it's because Miller dramatized first and for all time the iconic American loser. The man to whom life and work are a game at which he loses, for no reason he can understand. Who thinks that being well-liked is the key to success. Whose existence is slowly buried under a pile of objects he can't pay for: refrigerator, washing machine, carburetor, vacuum cleaner, hot water heater.

"For once in my life," he complains to Linda, "I'd like to own something outright before it breaks." But he never gets to that point. He breaks first.

Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Robert Falls. Set, Mark Wendland; lights, Michael Philippi; costumes, Birgit Rattenborg Wise; original music and sound, Richard Woodbury. With Richard Thompson, Allen Hamilton, Steve Pickering, Barbara Eda-Young, Kent Klineman, Stephanie March, Chelsea Altman.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company