A deeply original work that is also deeply influential may yet in time be trite. What once opened eyes comes to seem preloaded behind them, as if part of the general human inheritance.
Such has been the ironic trajectory of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” When it premiered on Broadway in 1949, with its depiction of the false hopes of capitalism and the family dysfunction left in its wake, there were fathers for whom “the doctor had to be called because they couldn’t stop crying,” the director Mike Nichols, who saw it then, said. “It was like an explosion.”
As “Salesman” spread into the culture with astonishing speed, it helped introduce the seismic re-evaluations of the ensuing decades. But now that we take those shocks to be self-evident, the job of making the play feel as new as it once did is a difficult one for those who would revive it. “Willy Loman” has long since become shorthand for the “low man” in the pecking order. And everyone for whom it was required high school reading already knows the story: how a washed-up salesman’s delusions about American success destroy not just his own life but also those of his wife, Linda, and their sons, Happy and Biff.
Short of stunt casting or radical resetting, directors must therefore dig either deeper or wider. Nichols’s 2012 Broadway production, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond as Willy and Linda, went deeper, examining the work with microscopic precision and even replicating Jo Mielziner’s original set design and Alex North’s music. The result was a very powerful mounting, and I use the word advisedly: It sometimes seemed like an exhibit.
The latest Broadway revival, which opened on Sunday at the Hudson Theater, goes wider, a notably rich and mostly successful approach. For the first time in a major New York production, the Lomans are played by Black actors. Wendell Pierce, as Willy, is wrenching as he flails and fails to avoid his fate instead of slumping into it from the start. And Sharon D Clarke, as Linda, is so paradoxically shattering in her stoicism that she turns what is usually portrayed as unshakable loyalty into a kind of heedless comorbidity.
Miranda Cromwell’s revival, based on one she directed in London with Marianne Elliott in 2019, does more than give us Black Lomans — including Khris Davis as Biff and McKinley Belcher III as Happy. It also, crucially, puts them in a largely white world. Willy’s employer (Blake DeLong), his neighbor (Delaney Williams) and his mistress (Lynn Hawley) are thus more than foils in the usual sense; like Willy, you can never untangle the personal, economic and now racial threads of their behavior. And even if they aren’t bigots, they electrify moments — a card game with the neighbor, a negotiation with the “boss” — in which Willy’s paranoia seems at the same time both fantastical and well founded.
It’s even more astonishing that the production achieves this effect with only a few minor alterations to the dialogue. (The college that Biff, a would-be football star, hopes to attend is now UCLA, instead of the University of Virginia, where the first Black student was not admitted until 1950 — and even then, only after a lawsuit.) Likewise, though the play’s web of urban imagery, much written about in AP English essays, is duly honored in Anna Fleischle’s skeletal set design, it gets new life when seen in the light of the redistricting and gentrification that squeezed many people like the Lomans out of their homes.
It’s therefore central to the effectiveness of the casting that it’s not colorblind. Neither the Black nor the white actors ignore race; they mine it, bringing their characters to fully specific and vivid life. Willy’s mistress has an ear-bending working-class white Boston accent. The oddly formal patois (“Nobody dast blame this man”) of the good-hearted neighbor Charley marks him as a clear outsider. (Williams is excellent in the part.) And Biff and Happy’s take on trash-talking, no less than Linda’s maternal don’t-cross-me commandments — “Attention must be finally paid!” — awakens lines you’ve heard innumerable times, asserting their implacable realness.
That awakening reaches a theatrical climax in André De Shields’s terrifying performance as the ghost of Willy’s older brother, Ben. Though dressed like Liberace in a white suit and crystal-studded shoes—the costumes are by Fleischle and Sarita Fellows—he makes every utterance sound like an elaborate curse. When he warns Biff not to “fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way,” he puts such a troubling spin on the words “boy” and “jungle” that you feel you should duck.
But what works to ground and intensify the performances does not always work for the production overall. Cromwell’s use of expressionistic devices like silhouettes and frozen poses to suggest Willy’s fragmenting consciousness seems obvious and unmoored, an intrusion of acquired Polaroid memories. And though the wistful music by Femi Temowo — including a beautiful spiritual-like setting of “When the Trumpets Sound” — sets the mood for the impending tragedy, it confuses the tone when used for comic effect, or worse, solace. There is no solace in “Salesman.”
In general, the balance of light and dark in this very dark play does not yet feel natural. Biff and Happy, in Willy’s memory, are not just boyish, but clichés of boyishness; aiming to solve this textual problem by underlining it, Cromwell’s direction makes it worse. On the other hand, Willy himself is often so unrelievedly monstrous that you sometimes can’t see past it to the monstrosity of American business that Miller means to indict.
Yet nothing can stop the engine of the final scenes, sparking and huffing and pushing the play into great drama. As the lies that bind at last come undone, we see each of the trapped family members liberated to choose life or death or a combination thereof. (The play’s last words, after all, are “We’re free.”) They have nothing left to sell. If you believe, as Nichols said in 2012, that “now everyone in America is a salesman,” you may even feel a shiver of recognition. Made new and unfamiliar once again in this production, the Lomans look like all of us.
Death of a Salesman
Through Jan. 15 at the Hudson Theater, Manhattan; salesmanonbroadway.com. Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes.