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Happy’s Times Are Here Again 

Death of a Salesman, and a gothic lampoon

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
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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.”

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Death of a Salesman is 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 Salesman as “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 Salesman seemed 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.

In the Ahmanson production, Brian Dennehy’s Willy — a gigantic man who flashes a toothy grimace — harks back to Lee J. Cobb’s often-evoked performance for the Actors Studio. Dennehy doesn’t brush off the painful reality of Willy’s circumstances, as did Dustin Hoffman, who, in 1984, played the role as some kind of fleet-footed shadowboxer. Rather, Miller’s hard truths seep through Dennehy, revealing themselves in the empathy-inducing, agonized facial expressions of a tourist lost in a foreign land. For the production’s first 15 minutes, I was completely mystified by Franz’s birdlike Linda, hearing a parody of the young Kate Hepburn not quite remembering her lines. Then came the “Attention must be paid” speech, a power surge with an emotional velocity that seemed somewhat over the top, but at least it was charged. From that point, I don’t know whether it was Franz’s synapses or my own that started firing, but I remained connected to her. Poor Eldard has to compete with the 16-year-old memory of John Malkovich’s anguished Biff, and comes out the worse for it.

Though Richard Woodbury’s sound design may be a tad portentous, director Falls subtly abstracts the play with the perpendicular angles of Mark Wendland’s set, somberly lit by Michael Philippi, so that each scene stands isolated on the open cavernous stage, or against a looming backdrop of bare panels, an architecture that dwarfs the characters and their domestic travails. The sets, and the actors upon them, swivel into place, as in so many musicals that employ revolving stages to shortcut more challenging and inventive theatrical techniques for changing the scenery. Here, however, those austerely turning set pieces evoke the fatalistic machinery that has ensnared the Lomans and so mercilessly ground them down.

As dated as many aspects of Death of a Salesman may seem (today, Linda would get a job, while, in Texas, tourists pay for the romance of doing the kind of ranch work so belittled by Willy), there’s no arguing with the eternal truth of parents and children failing each other. In fact, the power of Falls’ production lies precisely in how it succeeds in revealing archetypes to be clichés that somehow don’t look worn.

As if to parade some clichés that do look worn — in addition to satirizing the more constipated aspects of just about everything ever conceived by the Brontë sisters — comes Alice Dodd and Jillian Armenante’s gothic lampoon, In Flagrante Gothicto, sedulously directed by Armenante for Circle X Theater Company. Imagine an amalgam of works by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and D.H. Lawrence, with a touch of Rebecca thrown in for spice, and set in the stony confines of a north-of-England manse. This is also Charles Bush (The Mystery of Irma Vep) territory, with woebegotten waifs and crrru-el headmistresses and -masters, whose medieval notions of religious piety are supported a bit too gleefully by the lash. After the death of her father (John Sylvain — a quick gasp and he’s outta there), and after escaping the relentless vindictiveness of her prim Aunt Agnes (Cindy Basco), our nameless heroine (Dodd), costumed jaw-to-ankle in a drab cotton shift, finds herself saving the life of inner-tormented aristocrat Hampstead Hamilton (William Salyers), before being employed as his governess. Faster than you can say Jane Eyre, a romance ensues, made all the more difficult by Hampstead’s schizophrenic eccentricities and, of course, his class consciousness.

With baroque flourishes, the saga is narrated in voiceover by both our heroine and Hampstead, accompanied — like many of the scenes themselves — by the lush orchestrations of Armenante’s cinematic sound design. Even Beethoven’s Ninth gets some play, melding into the emotive lava flow of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, all juxtaposed against a lunatic dramatic resolution. The strain between haunting soundtrack and nimble parody is what draws attention to the antique literary devices, and to how susceptible we remain to them — or rather, to how stupid we feel for actually being moved by them for a moment or two. None of which would be possible without performances and staging that are close to perfect.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN | By ARTHUR MILLER At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through November 5

IN FLAGRANTE GOTHICTO | By ALICE DODD and JILLIAN ARMENANTE Presented by CIRCLE X THEATER COMPANY at the McCADDEN PLACE THEATER, 1157 McCadden Place, Hollywood | Through October 22

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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