By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Joan Marcus
“Isn’t that remarkable,” reflects washed-up traveling salesman Willy Loman (Brian Dennehy) after his estranged, prodigal son Biff (Ron Eldard) — a former high school football star, now a migrant ranch worker and petty thief — gently kisses him on the cheek during Biff’s final visit home in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, now at the Ahmanson Theater. Remarkable, yes, for that kiss of death marks the moment when Willy’s deluded rantings about how to succeed in business (“Be liked, and you will never want”) are replaced by the inner resolve that will allow Willy to finally “succeed” . . . in the last of a string of suicide attempts.
It’s also remarkable that this reconciliation between Biff and Willy arrives on the heels of Biff’s blunt announcement that both he and Willy come “a dime a dozen,” rather than being destined for greatness, as Willy’s bloated talk through the larger part of both their lives had led them to believe. No more: With that kiss — a killing gesture not only for Willy, but also for the American Dream and for the Protestant work ethic that manufactures it — the two life stories, Willy’s and Biff’s, merge into one.
Finally, it’s remarkable to see Miller’s 1949 play in the light of a new century, in such a handsome, grandiloquent production (staged by Robert Falls and imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater via Broadway), a production to which — quoting Willy’s long-suffering wife, Linda (Elizabeth Franz) — “attention must be paid.”
Death of a Salesmanis arguably the most successful of American leftist dramas, particularly in the way in which it shapes the struggle to pay the bills into a template of Greek tragedy. Until destiny knocks some sense into them, the entire Loman family — which also includes Biff’s brother, a philandering, boxed-in shipping clerk ironically named Happy (Ted Koch, with his idiosyncratic, even annoying, gravelly voice) — hold the belief that, come hell or high water, hard work leads to just rewards. Unfortunately for this luckless clan, both hell and high water arrive before the rewards, which is partly why the play’s first detractors described Death of a Salesmanas “un-American.” Imagine, in the postwar economic boom of the early ’50s, the reaction to an American “hero” complaining about high-rise apartments blocking the stars, or about being discarded by his employer “like an orange peel” (which sounds suspiciously like something Soviet playwright Maxim Gorky would have come up with). When the play first arrived, among the critics’ many complaints was that Willy Loman and his plight amounted to mere aberrations in an otherwise healthy economy, making them dubious fodder for an overview of society.
If Death of a Salesmanseemed anachronistic when it premiered — some creaky late entry in the Clifford Odets/Group Theater sweepstakes — how about half a century later, as we’re told again and again (most recently, in a report released by the Department of Labor) that the economy is booming, and that ever more Americans are climbing out of poverty? You’d think the play would be received as an antique curio rather than as a crack of thunder that brings audiences to their feet. One senses that we may not be entirely secure with the good news about our “robust economy.”
Over Death of a Salesman’s three-hour-plus running time, Willy reassesses the pivotal events of his life, shown in flashback, from various manifestations of his sons’ youthful adulation, to the day Biff gave up his academic and athletic pretensions, to a pair of phantom visits by Willy’s late brother (Allen Hamilton), a brutish speculator who struck it rich. With the exception possibly of August Wilson, people don’t write plays like this anymore — so packed with detail and repeated explanations, as though terrified that the audience might, even for a moment, feel disoriented. (We’re foretold at least three times of the scene in which Biff and Happy treat their dad to a night on the town.) Such an explicit writing style comes from an era of plays modeled after Ibsen, cluttered with incident and spoon-fed transitions, homing in on the central characters’ moral or ethical dilemmas, and the root causes of their tragic falls. Still — and in contrast to the lean, connect-the-dots structures of contemporary American scribes such as Lee Blessing, Richard Greenberg and Velina Hasu Houston — Miller here attains something like the gravitas of a Eugene O’Neill, or even a Euripides, gambling as he does on the prospect that, given enough exposition, some of it will accrue in thunderous resonances.
And in Salesman, it does: in the way Linda confronts Biff and Happy over how, for the sake of two floozies, they abandoned their dad, babbling to himself, in a public toilet; or in the way Willy pleads with his boss (Steve Pickering), whom he anointed so many years ago, for an easier schedule, before hitting up droll neighbor Charley (Howard Witt) for yet another “loan.” And, of course, there’s that kiss. There’s nothing subtle about these powerful scenes, which offer, instead, the theatrical equivalent of being struck by lightning.