Odds and Ends on “Death of a Salesman”

This piece is prompted by the current Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which I am scheduled to see on October 12. Neither a review nor an analysis, it is just some thoughts on time spent with the play.

Since its premiere in 1949, where it won all six of its Tony Award nominations (and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), “Death of a Salesman” has had four Broadway revivals, all of which I am fortunate to have seen: in 1975 with George C. Scott as Willy Loman; 1984 with Dustin Hoffman; 1999 with Brian Dennehy; and 2012 with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Not yet a full-time critic in 1984 (I held a sales job), I was nonetheless invited by the Asbury Park Press to review the Dustin Hoffman production, based on having played Willy’s son Biff at the Asbury Playhouse years before, with Vincent Gardenia as Willy, Janice Mars as his wife Linda, and Bernie McInerney as other son Happy.

Heading of my review of the Dustin Hoffman production in the Asbury Park Press: April 29, 1984

The Dustin Hoffman “Salesman” was re-staged a year after it had closed on Broadway (after 91 performances) for the express purpose of filming it. That 1985 film, which, according to the NY Times, was “created closely with Miller,” is streaming on several platforms, including for free on Amazon Prime.

My April 29, 1984 Press article led with comments about how my Playhouse producing partner Barbara Ley and I had enticed well-known actor Vincent Gardenia to accept the role despite a short rehearsal period (six days!) and an Equity-stock salary. His father, who had recently died, had played Willy Loman in Italian, and Vinnie came to Asbury Park in memory of his father. (Our director Gennaro Montanino’s Italian heritage didn’t hurt our cause.)

Photo that appeared in the Asbury Park Press on February 9, 1966 with review of the Vincent Gardenia production. Bernie McInerney as Happy, left, and me as Biff on floor while Willy (Gardenia) appeals to his brother Ben (Norman Roland).

My Dustin Hoffman column discussed the play in general terms. How everything about it is common. How there is nothing exciting or dramatic about Willy’s career; even the selection of Willy’s traveling-sales territory, Rhode Island and other New England states, is part of the lower-case construction of the play. Could anyone imagine Willy calling on buyers in Chicago or Dallas?

That production was directed by Michael Rudman, and there was significant praise for Dustin (my “brilliant performance” might have been a bit over the top) and for the supporting cast. Kate Reid, wonderful as Linda, was overcome with tears at her Brava! curtain call, and John Malkovich and Stephen Lang were both strong as Biff and Hap.

The filmed performance, directed by Volker Schlondorff, retained the stage cast, with the exception of David Huddleston, who was replaced by Charles Durning as Charley. (It amused me to note that a few years earlier, Durning had proposed marriage to Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”)

Dustin Hoffman was cast against type. “I’m fat. I’m – very foolish to look at,” Willy tells Linda, bemoaning someone’s “walrus” remark. (Cue suspension of disbelief.) Age-wise, though, while Miller specifies that Willy is “past sixty years of age” (Linda pinpoints it at 63), Dustin, at 47, was hardly an anomaly. George C. Scott was 48 in 1975, and while Brian Dennehy was 61 in ’99, Philip Seymour Hoffman was 45 in 2012, and Lee J. Cobb had originated Willy at age 38. (The current Willy, Wendell Pierce, is 58.)  Lee J. Cobb lost the role in the 1951 commercial movie to Frederic March because of his, Cobb’s, past Communist Party affiliation.

[After being ‘outed’ by Larry Parks in ‘51 and holding out for two years, Cobb capitulated to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), naming twenty other former Party members. That cooperation cleared him to work again and he went on to appear in scads of movies, including his Oscar-nominated role as Johnny Friendly in “On the Waterfront.” Written by Budd Shulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, two other ‘friendly’ HUAC witnesses, “Waterfront” is an apologia for caving. Arthur Miller, who refused to cooperate with HUAC, illustrated his more admirable stance a few years later in “The Crucible.”]

Other notables of my Willy Loman sightings have included my close friend and former producing associate Paul Barry at New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in 1991; one at Paper Mill Playhouse in 1998 with Ralph Waite, with whom I had appeared in “Marathon ‘33” on Broadway; and, in 2015, Avi Hoffman’s innovative off-Broadway take: in Yiddish with unnecessary English super-titles.

Finally – initially, really – there was my introduction to the play in the 1950s: As a freshman at U Penn I was asked by seniors who were planning a production (off-campus due to the university’s then-ultra-conservative bent) to read for and then play Willy’s neighbor Charley. Cast members from that decades-ago “Salesman” are still among my closest friends.

In his prologue to “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller wrote “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in the highest sense as kings were.”  During the requiem, Miller has Charley declare “Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life…A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” The upcoming revival is ground-breaking in that the Loman family are portrayed by Black actors. But it will still open with Willy’s fatigued “Oh boy, oh boy” sigh and close with Linda declaring at Willy’s graveside that “We’re free and clear.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Original Playbill from the week of August 29, 1949. Gifted to me from a friend who found it in a secondhand desk’s drawer.

 

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

String Theory, Quarks, and the Big Bang, Oh My: “Strings Attached” Off-Broadway

“Strings Attached” is about three physicists, an American woman and two British men, on their way by train from Cambridge to London to see Michael Frayn’s science-based play “Copenhagen.” June (Robyne Parrish) is married to George (Paul Schoeffler) while also in an affair with Rory (Brian Richardson). En route, June recalls a tragic event from a past train trip, and there are interruptions by fellow travelers, a couple from America and one from Ukraine (presumably pre-Russian invasion).

Robyne Parrish, Brian Richardson (on floor), and Paul Schoeffler  [Photos: John Quilty]

Also, each physicist is visited by the ghost of an historically significant scientist: June by two-time Nobel Laureate (2003 in Physics and 2011 in Math) Marie Curie (Bonnie Black); 1918 Nobelist, German theoretical physicist Max Planck (Russell Saylor), appears to Rory; and Isaac Newton (Jonathan Hadley), whose 17th Century career pre-dated the 1901 Nobel inaugural, to George. And all that is in the first act.

Act two repeats the start of act one with the same train-boarding scene and dialogue. But the devil is in the details, as is said. The trio’s marriage and extra-marital situations are scrambled, as is the traumatic recollection. Thus is established the Parallel Universe concept. My clumsy take on it: We exist only as we are observed at any given point in multiple dimensions of time and space. It is a fascinating notion, which “Strings Attached” playwright Carole Buggé adopts as a starting point for her equally fascinating play, running through October 1 at Theatre Row. (Thanks to Buggé, I now know it was a falling peach, not an apple, that alerted Newton to the force of gravity. Live and learn.)

Jonathan Hadley (as Sir Isaac Newton) and Paul Schoeffler

Under Alexa Kelly’s smooth direction, the fluid relationships are always clear; her blocking alone on Jessica Parks’s set is outstanding. The playwright allows that “the set requirements are minimal” and can be just “four chairs on a stage,” but you do not engage designer Parks to just, um, park four chairs on a stage. Her train compartment is more spacious and grander than an actual one, allowing for the movement and seating configurations that director Kelly manipulates so well. It is a beaut.

The metaphysics of time and space, and how the relatively recent M Theory expands upon String Theory and rebuts the Big Bang, are semi-explained in excessive jargon. One charted illustration of a Planck theorem, explained first by Planck and expanded upon by June, is way too academic, and some other exchanges are also challenging. That noted, the play is, at its heart, a romantic triangle, a dramady with tones of grief, deception and loss.

There is also a good amount of humor. A joke about how many physicists it takes to screw in a light bulb is paraphrased a few times, each one funnier than the last. And it turns out that Isaac Newton is a particularly witty fellow. (Who knew?) Among the litany of wishes June, Rory and George rap about, besides truth and goodness and eternal life, are a really effective deodorant, really good ice cream, and multiple orgasms. (Quantum physics can only do so much.)

The excellent acting is all of a piece; discrete characters, to be sure, but on the same wavelength – or, in keeping with the theme, on parallel wavelengths. June is a fulcrum between her two traveling companions; her affection for both is constant, even as her alliances with them shifts during intermission. Parrish plays both the constancy and the swing with apparent ease. Smashing in a flowing, earth tone pants outfit (Elena Vannoni’s costumes are spot-on), her June mediates and consoles without favor. Strong, clever women handle awkward situations well, assure the author, director, and actor.

Robyne Parrish

The men are no less effective. George is a stuffy, stoic chap, whose emotions are nonetheless exposed in Schoeffler’s perceptive reading. Rory is quicker to anger, to take the bait; Richardson adeptly captures his passion for scientific inquiry – and for June. Hadley, Black and Saylor evoke the historical figures (and the Ukrainian and American couples) without undue exaggeration.

From left: Jonathan Hadley, Bonnie Black, Paul Schoeffler, Robyne Parrish, Brian Richardson, Russell Hadley

At one point, surprised at the long run of “Copenhagen,” the play they’ll see in London, George wonders “Who wants to see a play about physics?” You may feel the same, but put that aside for a play in which physical science and human relationships, despite being on parallel lines, do meet up in the end. With shout-outs to “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver,” and snippets of the poetry of Blake, Yeats and T. S. Eliot, “Strings Attached” is one of the smartest plays on a current New York stage.

Through October 1 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. For Wed – Sun performance schedule and tickets: www.stringsattached-offbroadway.org

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

A “Godot” Worth Waiting For at Barrington Stage Company

An esteemed scholar once wrote about “Waiting for Godot” that “We all bring to Samuel Beckett’s play whatever is uppermost in our minds.” As tidy as that seems, my “Godot” experience has been the opposite…or reverse: I leave performances with fresh thoughts and concepts uppermost in my mind – and different ones every time. The play is soul food for the brain and, while challenging on a traditional level (no plot or resolution), it is only as complex as you make it. In its way, it is quite musical, and trying to analyze every note is a fool’s errand. I saw it last week at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the heart of beautiful Berkshire County.

Two apparent tramps, Estragon, nicknamed ‘Gogo’ (Kevin Isola), and Vladimir ‘Didi’ (Mark H. Dold), are waiting for the mysterious Godot, who [spoiler alert] never arrives. The two banter and quibble, largely in existential non-sequiturs. They are joined in portions of each act by another odd couple: would-be aristocrat Pozzo (Christopher Innvar) and his much-abused, tethered slave Lucky (Max Wolkowitz).

Kevin Isola, left, and Mark H. Dold as Estragon and Vladimir [Photos: Daniel Rader]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Sure and it’s “The Butcher Boy” at Irish Rep

Mrs. Nugent should have quit while she was ahead. When she went to the Brady home to complain that her son Philip was being bullied by Francie Brady, Francie’s ma was ready to punish him. Yes yes I know I will of course, Mrs. Brady assured Mrs. Nugent. Francie, overhearing the exchange, was sure his ma would come flying up the stairs, get him by the ear and throw him on the step, which she would have done “if Nugent hadn’t started on about the pigs.” On and on she rants, dissing the Brady home, the father’s drunkenness (no better than a pig), and shouting Pigs-sure the whole town knows that as she strides off.

That incident, on page four of Patrick McCabe’s 1992 prize-winning novel “The Butcher Boy” sets the trajectory of its anti-hero narrator, Francie Brady.

Francie Brady (Nicholas Barasch) is haunted by porcine imaginings, portrayed by cast members  in “The Butcher Boy”  [Production photos: Carol Rosegg]

McCabe’s novel, set in a small western Ireland town in the 1960s (date check: Cuban missile crisis), is engrossing. With no quotation marks or commas (The only punctuation is sentence-enders), the brogue-heavy dialogue can be challenging, but Francie’s stream-of-consciousness becomes yours as well. Not so much in Neil Jordan’s 1997 movie, in which the characters flatten out; Francie’s da, for one, a vivid presence on the page, becomes a bore, even in the person of Stephen Rea.

In yet another incarnation, “The Butcher Boy” has now been adapted by Asher Muldoon (book, music and lyrics) into a musical, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly and running through September 11 at Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan. The unlikely musical hews largely to the novel and the film, with a few elisions, including one that heightens the climactic impact. The musical falls somewhere between the novel and the film, lacking the former’s narrative nuances and the movie’s colorful Irish backgrounds, but you won’t be bored.

Francie (Nicholas Barasch) with his ma (Andrea Lynn Green)

If “The Butcher Boy” is a coming-of-age tale, it is an unsavory one, more lurid than illuminating. Francie, propelled by reckless bravado, develops an obsession with pigs…and with Nooge, as he dubs Mrs. N. Unstable from the start, he trashes the Nugent home and does…well, what pigs do, on the kitchen floor. Committed to a medieval-inspired mental institution, he is further traumatized by his mother’s suicide and by the defection of his erstwhile best friend Joe, who adds insult to injury by buddying-up with Philip Nugent. Released from hospital after some extreme intervention, and faking recovery, Francie finds employment in a hog slaughterhouse, an atmosphere that triggers his descent into utter derangement.

Dicey doings for a musical, yes? But somehow, Muldoon, a rising senior at Princeton and musical theater veteran despite his youth, pulls it off, with the estimable aid of actor Nicholas Barasch’s sensitive Francie. Exhibiting minimal signs of Francie’s imbalance – no tics, leers, or other bizarre tropes – Barasch nonetheless conveys the inner turmoil that sets Francie aboil. His is a textbook less-is-more performance.

Francie and Joe (Christian Strange), best pals…until they’re not

Much of the action takes place in Francie’s imagination, including pig-masked people who torment him and who would be funny if not for the macabre context. The detachment from reality allows Francie and the others to sing out their feelings; none of the numbers is particularly memorable, but there are a couple nifty vaudeville song-and-dance routines. Barry McNabb’s unpretentiously performed choreography has a sprightly comic flavor, and music director David Hancock Turner’s efficient Slaughterhouse Five orchestra is a perfect fit for the intimate auditorium.

Adapter Muldoon and director O’Reilly get a lot right; there is enough here of the novel to maintain the flow. One deviation from the original stands out as an improvement: the ending. Where so many plays and musicals continue past their natural denouements   (“Bridges of Madison County” anyone?), “The Butcher Boy” musical eschews what is essentially an epilogue and concludes with a scene that will either chill or exhaust you. Either way, “The Butcher Boy” ends with a bang, not with a whimper.

Through September 11 at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, NYC. For performance schedule and tickets: www.irishrep.org

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Fortunately, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” Has Eight More Lives

Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” reportedly his own personal favorite, has weathered so many revivals and revisions since its 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning premiere that allusions to a feline’s nine lives is pretty much unavoidable. So there it is.

Besides the 1974 production that restored previously excised text, and one in 1990, there were three other Broadway revivals in one recent ten-year span: 2003, 2008 and 2013. After a more respectable interlude, another revival is now on view. The Ruth Stage production, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, is the first “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” authorized by the Tennessee Williams estate for off-Broadway production. Would that it were more worthy. Perhaps the finest example of Southern Gothic literature written for the stage, it falls short here, partly in conception and partly in execution.

The play is set over one day and evening in the Mississippi estate of domineering cotton tycoon Big Daddy Pollitt on the occasion of his 65th birthday and (alleged) clean bill of health. It zeroes in on Big Daddy’s alcoholic son Brick and Brick’s wife Margaret (Maggie the Cat), whose intimacy-deprived marriage is haunted by repression and denial. Other family members surround them in swirls of greed, jealousy, frustration and, as the theme evolves, mendacity. Despite their intra-personal tensions, they share traditional Southern roots and sensibilities, little of which are in evidence in Joe Rosario’s detached direction. With one notable exception, for example, there is scarcely even an inflected drawl to be heard. Southern Gothic this “Cat” is not.

Sonoya Mizuno as Maggie and Matt de Rogatis (Brick) [Production photos: Miles Skalli]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Perfection in Two Acts: “Into the Woods” on Broadway

It is fascinating to imagine the processes that went into mounting the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” Not only Stephen Sondheim’s exquisite music and lyrics and James Lapine’s unifying book – those are givens. No, I mean the journey from page to stage that led to the most brilliant production in many a year. This “Into the Woods” is musical theater perfection.

The play is a joyful, uplifting fairy tale…until it’s not. Interlocking the traditional tales of Little Red Riding Hood; Jack the Giant Killer (of Beanstalk fame); Cinderella and her Prince; Rapunzel and hers; and a Wicked Witch, and adding two original characters, a Baker and his Wife (Rapunzel’s sister), into a coherent mosaic and then deconstructing the myths is, arguably, Sondheim’s crowning achievement, an assertion bolstered by this production.

The cast of “Into the Woods”

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater