Death of a Salesman
Strange choices and weak acting cripple City Theatre's take on Arthur Miller's magnum opus
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Oct. 19, 2007
Death of a Salesman
City Theatre, through Nov. 4
Running time: 2 hr, 55 min
Hell if there are many figures in American drama more tragic than Willy Loman. The iconic title character from Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman refuses to believe the American Dream can die, even when it's lying in shambles in his very house. A man in self-denial, delusional, of many mood swings and capable of real hurt to his family, that's Willy, and yet you can't help but pray for his beleaguered soul.
Many have tackled Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, but that hasn't held back the City Theatre Company from wading into Salesman's miasma of broken dreams and fractured relationships (and clocking in at just under three hours, it's a long wade at that). Salesman revolves around the Loman men – aging father Willy and his two sons, Biff and Happy – and their hopeless search for success. Willy, for all his trumpeting and hifalutin, for all his idioms ("Be liked, and you will never want"), has no clue about success and has only passed down false promises to his boys.
Their struggle to prosper in New York City is coupled, in traditional Miller fashion, with a deeper secret that the family doesn't want to acknowledge. But this is considered Miller's magnum opus for a reason – for all Miller's ideas, it's the character arcs, emotions, and drama that come through. Yup, it's a humdinger all right. In telling this tale, however, Andy Berkovsky's production is crippled by strange choices and weak acting.
Any production of Salesman will only go as far as its Willy Loman can take it, and as Willy, Chronicle Arts critic Barry Pineo surely has the gusto to go the whole distance. Pineo is grandstanding as Willy, big-bodied and big-voiced, always the commandant of the scene. While Pineo stays committed to this strong 'n' hearty Willy, it seems to ring somehow untrue with some of the play's direction. Is this the Willy who can't drive to Boston anymore, the one who is continually referred to as exhausted? Is this a man so broken down by his life on the road that he can't separate fiction from reality, who ping-pongs between emotions?
Pineo's Willy runs high and hard when happy or upset, like he's stuck in one gear. This energy works well in the flashback scenes when Willy and the boys were in their supposed prime, but otherwise it comes off as to much too often. Pineo doesn't really go anywhere with the character, and, despite all of Willy's ramblings, Pineo's salesman doesn't have an inner monologue: Everything is played with a heart-on-his-sleeve earnestness. When Willy does come down from this peak, it comes too late in the game to have its intended impact.
And other than solid supporting roles by Willy's wife, Linda, and Happy, played by Laurie Coker and Tyler Jones, respectively, the acting in this Salesman underwhelms. While Brandon Nagle looks every bit the James Dean-like Biff, his lines are delivered in a flat, frustrated-action-hero style. Ultimately the choices of this production seem safe, like they didn't want to take risks by making Willy an asshole at some points, complicate the stage by switching backdrops, or show too much pain. But just like the Lomans in Salesman, it seems like a deeper, more dangerous truth is missing.
Look: When it counts, Salesman delivers. The Lomans' breakdown is always hard to watch: It wrenches the audience, and the City Theatre production is no different. Unfortunately, it takes awhile for this show to get there, and you'll have to wade through some peculiar choices, maudlin music, and poorly acted scenes to get there.