Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Salesman
Last Thursday, May 10, I experienced what can be called with no exaggeration a dream come true: watching Philip Seymour Hoffman on Broadway. It’s been a goal for years, and there was something so surreal about actually seeing this man on stage. He hasn’t done Broadway since 2003, when he played James Tyrone, Jr. in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (man that would have been amazing), so you don’t know how many chances you’ll have if you miss this one. It didn’t hurt that the play was Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Or that the legendary Mike Nichols was directing. Or that Andrew Garfield was performing as Biff. If that doesn’t comprise “must-see theater” then I don’t know what does. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to see a play with credentials comparable to these, or one that actually follows through with such promise in the same way, and there’s something sad about that. Once you look forward to something so long, you kind of feel deflated after it’s over (no matter how amazing it is…perhaps the more amazing it is, the more deflated you feel). You want it to go on forever, because once you leave the theater, you can’t be excited about it anymore. But enough pining. It was the best play I’ve ever seen with the most consistent performances of the lot. And while I might never see anything equal to it, I can at least enjoy the memory of something so extraordinary. “Death of a Salesman” received seven Tony nominations, and I hope it cleans up at the awards ceremony, because I can’t imagine anything deserving it more. It’s been revived many times, but this version felt so definitive that it seems strange that any other four individuals could perform it so intimately and so believably. You really buy them as a family unit, which is not an easy thing to pull off.
I have to admit that until Thursday, I’ve never been particularly blown away by “Death of a Salesman.” I read it in high school and understood its status as a classic, but it was never top-drawer stuff for me. Even after the TV movie with Dustin Hoffman, it was difficult for me to connect on an emotional level. Now, however, after viewing what appears to be a defining revival, I consider the play in my top tier. The themes are as relevant now as they were when it was written (perhaps more so): a man past 50 being told he’s becoming irrelevant, the changing economic realities, a man/child attempting to find himself, a father who can hardly separate past from present, a salesman who is not kingly enough to receive myriad individuals at his funeral but who nonetheless deserves sympathy as a human being, etc. But at the heart of the play is the contentious relationship between a father and a son, and in the hands of master actors, the dynamic is heartbreaking. Willy and Biff’s interplay is shot through with both love and spite, which is obviously the stuff of classically tragic theater. But this “Death of a Salesman” felt so modern that it hurt. Perhaps that’s what I loved most about this production, the modernism of it. It’s a byproduct both of how it’s performed and how it’s staged. The acting is so intimate, with characters constantly touching each other and expressing affection through such connectivity. Five years ago, I saw Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten” with Kevin Spacey, and it was a fabulous production. Yet, there was a kind of distance to it, both in the way it was acted and written. O’Neill’s voice can be very poetic, but that kind of articulation can keep spectators at arm’s length. This “Death of a Salesman,” on the other hand, felt like it was written today…full of flesh and blood and sweat. The characters do not drift off into monologues about the sea or about being a little in love with death. They speak like we do…talking about the same things but with less poetry. Now that I think about it, there are times where you can get “Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” mixed up with each other. Take out a morphine-addicted mother and baroque alcoholism and you have a very similar dynamic: a father who can’t keep his past out of his present, two boys who can hardly recognize how lost they are, and buried family secrets that continually affect every interaction. It might not be fun, but it’s my kind of theater.
I love dramatic theater because it seems to share my thematic obsessions, not the least of which is a conflation between history and today. In “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Mary says, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.” This line recalls one of my favorite Faulkner quotes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (“Requiem for a Nun”). O’Neill’s plays are very much about this sentiment, but so is “Death of a Salesman,” and I never quite realized it until Thursday. Another pet theme of mine is self-deception, something I respond to so diligently in “Streetcar”‘s Blanche or “Iceman”‘s Hickey. Sometimes we lie to ourselves so vehemently that we believe it to be true, and we agree upon these lies with individuals to the point where the things we never speak about are the things that our relationships actually hinge on. “Death of a Salesman” is no different. The characters stretch truths and ignore truths and realize that their family is built on a shaky foundation. Where does it end? If we stare truth in the face, will be better for it or will it kill us? If all we have is a facade, then our existence falls with the crumbling of it. Willy Loman is a broken man trying to muster the will to mend himself, and when he can’t do so, he delves into past closets and hides there til he’s torn away from them. It’s true tragedy, tragedy of the basest kind. But I doubt there’s a single audience member who can’t relate. All of this talk and none about the performances. How much can one say without spouting off flowery superlatives? I typically like to describe performances rather than saddle them with hackneyed labels such as “unbelievable” or “amazing,” but I’m finding it difficult here, perhaps because they live and breathe on the stage. I can’t rewind and pause and recall exact moments. Not that they don’t exist, but transferring them from my mind to typed letters is proving a challenge.
I’ll start with Finn Wittrock (Happy), a Julliard alum and “All My Children” star. Of the four main performers, he’s the only one who didn’t receive a Tony nomination, and he’s the one most likely to be overlooked in general. But if you have a single weak actor in the family, the whole thing will fall apart (much like “Long Day’s Journey”). Wittrock is, in his own way, glue that holds it all together. Providing deftly handled comic relief (verbal and physical) and a kind of base emotionalism, Wittrock’s Happy is in perfect unison with Biff. It’s not the showiest of roles, but the young actor pulls it off expertly. This guy should have a future ahead of him. Linda Emond’s Linda actually is the glue holding the family together, or at least trying to. It’s a deceptively simple role, one that I imagine would induce a number of headaches. Emond is stunningly natural and believable, never going over the top and never acting like she’s on a stage. You feel her pain and her misplaced optimism, and she plays those famous final moments for all they’re worth. This is of course Hoffman’s show, and he acts like he was born for this role. I know that everyone from Lee J. Cobb to George C. Scott to Dustin Hoffman to Brian Dennehy have donned Loman’s shoes, but after seeing this Hoffman, I’m having trouble picturing anyone else doing it so definitively. Sporting a Brooklyn accent (much like what he does in Mary and Max) and a bear-like physicality (using it the way he does in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), Hoffman commands the stage. This isn’t a frail Willy Loman, not one that looks like he could fall over dead any minute. This is a big, towering Willy Loman, trying to hold onto his virility and growing more and more angry that he can’t do so. There’s an interesting ferocity to the performance, which I thought was a bit nontraditional but still effective. When he yells at Biff it’s almost scary. This guy could knock you out, and I found that slightly jarring at first but it ended up working perfectly. The family is almost afraid of this Willy, not only because of what he might do to himself but perhaps also because of what he might do to them. I might be totally misreading this, but I thought it added a lot of tension and put me on edge when I wasn’t expecting to be. Hoffman is jaw-droppingly committed here, channeling an internal rage and an unsettling nostalgia to the point where you forget about all his other roles and think that he’s only just played this one. And that’s the great thing about Hoffman, who might be my favorite actor working right now. Every time I see him, I feel like he’s only played that role. He makes every part so definitive, every character so distinct. He might not completely change every time, but you’d never get two characters mixed up. I mean, is there anything this guy can’t do? His Willy Loman has a strong voice and a commanding presence. None of the nebbish whininess found in Happiness. None of the femininity found in Flawless. None of the flighty spontaneity found in Almost Famous. Somehow he changes every time, and yet he doesn’t. You know it’s the actor, but all you see is the character.
Hoffman might be my favorite actor, and he’s admittedly wonderful in the play, but my biggest takeaway has to be Andrew Garfield. Perhaps it’s because this is his Broadway debut and he has more to prove (although he’s done London theater). Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen Hoffman in so many amazing performances in so many movies. I know what he can do, and even though I’m continually impressed, I’m never surprised (I mean, I’m surprised by the performances themselves, but not by the fact that he does so well). Garfield, however, has done strong work in the past. He’s just not had that moment where he knocks you out of your seat, where you forget to breathe because he’s created such a fraught dynamic in the scene. This was that moment for me. Don’t get me wrong…I’ve been a fan of Garfield’s, but I’ve never quite been in unmistakable awe. Not until Thursday. He deserves every bit of that Tony Award, and I hope he gets it. He’s done great work in Boy A, Red Riding, The Social Network, and Never Let Me Go, but I’ve never seen him like this. It’s a searing, intense performance, one that sticks in your bones long after the curtain closes. He has a consistent Brooklyn accent. He has a command of his physicality—believably a football player and believably something of a bully. He has a suave that brings to mind screen titans, and an angst that brings to mind the same. I just can’t imagine another Biff. The final confrontation and subsequent breakdown with his father is so mesmerizing you think you’re in a kitchen rather than a mezzanine. It’s full of simultaneous rage and tenderness, much like Hoffman’s performance. And the scene where he attempts to tell his father that he stole a pen is so tense that you want to yell directions to Biff. But for me, I’ll never forget the look on his face when he sees his father in a hotel room with another woman. It’s a look of disbelief, a look of terror. He drops his suitcase, spit and tears falling onto the ground. And he awkwardly sits on his suitcase and sobs. He sobs like we rarely do, like when we know getting it out of our systems won’t get it out of our lives. He sobs like we do when we feel like we’ve forgotten how to breathe. Like we might never remember again. In that moment, Biff’s life is changed forever. And so was my opinion of Andrew Garfield. That’s not something you fake; it’s something you feel. With so many opportunities in film, I admire Garfield for returning to the stage to feel. It’s not easy, but worthwhile things rarely are. When asked why he decided to do this play, he says “it’s that thing of waiting to be found out…that you’re nonsense.” I remember Stephen Merchant saying something similar about stand-up. It’s the fear of it that attracts you. It’s wanting to see what you’re made of, to see if you can do something that you don’t think you can. When we feel terrified and uncomfortable and doubting ourselves, that’s often when we learn the most, and the theater is certainly a place for that. Film can be, but I feel that theater always is. I love what Tom Hardy says here: ”But then, the stage is not somewhere we come to eat. It is where we come to be eaten” (IGN). I think that’s true both of the actors and the spectators. When Garfield was offered the chance to eat, he chose to be eaten. And we, as audience members, were eaten as well in an absolutely heartbreaking production. I wish more young actors would do the same. When we face ugly things, we grow as people. Dramatic theater always forces you to do this, and that’s why it will never go away.