Broadway Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN (Hudson Theatre)

Post image for Broadway Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN (Hudson Theatre)

by Dmitry Zvonkov on October 14, 2022

in Theater-New York

WHAT’S BEEN DONE TO DEATH

What cache Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic Death of a Salesman has in terms of power and artistry, nuance, subtlety and insight, is buried by Miranda Cromwell’s ineffectual staging currently on display at the Hudson Theatre. Neither the director nor most of the cast demonstrate anything but the most superficial connection to or emotional understanding of the material in this orthodox-with-a-twist interpretation, which tells the story of Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) a 60-something failing salesman whose life and legacy are crushed by the American Dream.

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke

With much of the story told in flashbacks the action oscillates between a hopeful past and hopeless present. Here we bear witness to the deterioration of Willy’s mental and emotional states—casualties of his failures and regrets, and of a lifetime spent in a futile pursuit of success and approbation, goals which he’s chased without ever asking himself if they were worth pursuing. Cromwell facilitates these leaps through time and space with the help of Anna Fleischle’s set, whose decorations, suspended by wires, are raised and lowered onto the stage as needed, and by Jen Schriever’s often dramatic lighting flourishes, which are supposed to underscore the emotional and psychological states of the characters. But although conceived and executed well enough in and of themselves, both set and lighting elements feel overwrought, their abstract and expressionistic elements out of place in this tedious production.

McKinley Belcher III, Wendell Pierce, Khris Davis

But the real cancer of this revival are the performances. I hate to bash actors — even when they’re not very good they still work hard, they put themselves out there. And if an actor lacks talent or isn’t right for the part is that really their fault? That said, in Cromwell’s Salesman, rather than mining their insides for something resembling real feelings, the main cast does a lot of indicating and play-acting, fake-crying, and having emotional outbursts that sound like the performers are afraid of their own voices. The Lomans’ children, Biff and Happy Loman (Khris Davis and McKinley Belcher III respectively) are obviously miscast — I do not believe they are brothers, I do not believe that Biff is a loser who carries the weight of failure on his shoulders, and I certainly don’t believe that Happy is a Casanova who loves sex with women. Sharon D Clarke, who plays Willy’s wife Linda, is emotional enough, maybe too much so — she starts the show at a ten. But the bigger issue is the lack of variation to her performance; she’s not so much playing Linda as an idea of Linda — a generic version of an older mid-century housewife distressed over the troubles of her husband and her two ne-re-do-well sons. As for Mr. Pierce, he is extremely energetic and in that sense seems to give it his all. Unfortunately all his antics feel ungrounded and false.

The Ensemble

This lack of truthfulness prevents us from connecting emotionally to the characters, which makes great lines fall flat and turns the entire experience into an arduous chore. Cromwell is either deaf to all the false notes or is incapable of correcting them. I lean towards the former, especially considering some of her other directorial choices which range from dull to pretentious to ludicrous — such as when a restaurant scene which is supposed to be uncomfortable, even painful, plays out (seemingly unintentionally and certainly inappropriately) like slapstick. Or when Linda has a telephone conversation with Biff. We’re only supposed to hear her. But Cromwell has a wind instrument insert little notes during Linda’s pauses, as though the notes are Biff answering her. The result reminds one of the muffled noises that serve as adults’ voices in Peanuts cartoons, with Cromwell’s invention turning a scene which is supposed to lay the groundwork for emotional turmoil into a silly, distracting trifle.

Sharon D Clarke, Wendell Pierce, André De Shields

Lastly, Cromwell casts all black actors to play the Lomans, with mostly white actors playing their neighbors, friends, bosses and lovers. Had the script been modernized to take place in 2022 this would not have been an issue one way or another — the problems explored by Miller in Salesman are certainly relevant today. But the action takes place at a period when $15,000 a year was an excellent salary, the 1940s in other words. And back then the reality for a white lower-middle class family in America (which is the subject of Miller’s work) was very different than for a black one. The show acknowledges this black family aspect by inserting some jazzy/bluesy-type sentimental musical numbers — which feel like they’re glued to the show with a piece of Scotch tape — but does nothing else to explore this conspicuous casting decision. In this sense making the Lomans black seems like it’s a nod to something. But the gesture feels incomplete, the sentiment empty.

Blake DeLong and Wendell Pierce

All that said, this production was said to be exceptionally well received in London’s West End. I wouldn’t have believed it except that the performance I saw got a bona fide standing ovation. So go figure.

McKinley Belcher III and Khris Davis

photos by Joan Marcus

Death of a Salesman
Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Steet)
ends on January 15, 2023
for tickets and info, visit Hudson or Salesman on B’way

{ 2 comments }

Perry H October 15, 2022 at 12:08 am

I agree with much of this review. But I thought the reviewer didn’t see the interesting and delicate things that Sharon D. Clarke did to project what a black Linda might have done to keep her family together. I also liked some of Pierce’s approach to the role though I wouldn’t really argue with the reviewer’s complaints. I think it succeeded in London because the cast surrounding Pierce and Clarke was probably better. And let’s face it: if a production makes Uncle Ben more important than Biff, something has truly gone awry. Most reviewers didn’t really talk much about Biff and Happy except in casual references, almost as if they were afraid to talk about how weak the actors were. I also disliked the set design more than anyone else, including this reviewer, though ultimately he seems to think it doesn’t make sense. (Also, this production gives credit to only one of its original directors. One wonders what that was about.)

I don’t go back far enough to the original production, but I have seen enough productions to have a more considered point of view. And the guys I saw it with knew the play from studying it in college but had never seen any of the previous productions, and liked it. So the only thing one can think of is that the power of the play does come through even in a production which is, as this reviewer points out, ineffectual.

DubbleLRo October 21, 2022 at 4:26 pm

I am surprised the reviewer did not mention the caricature-like portrayal of Loman’s Boston buyer’s office secretary whose laugh read like a musical comedy character in Oklahoma! as a Hot-Box Girl from Guys & Dolls. This being a season of inclusion on the Broadway stage and elsewhere, I saw no problem with the talented black cast and the inclusion of a culture specific spiritual song. I believe it is misguided direction and not the actors to blame for some less than optimally realized moments. Regarding the aforementioned lighting and technical effects, I share the opinion of this review. I also found them to be overwrought and unnecessary; the playwrights emotional gem of an ending and Ms. Clarke’s final moment was tragically muddled by cinematic and radio drama sound-effects, evoking overkill.

Comments on this entry are closed.