The anticipatory buzz that precedes a major Broadway opening wore a silencer on March 15 — the Ides of March — and a distinctly reverential tone hovered over first-nighters who filed into the Barrymore Theatre to praise Caesar, not to bury him.
Caesar, in this case, is the King Lear of American drama, Willy Loman, created by Arthur Miller in his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, in 1949 — a road-worn traveling salesman at the end of the line, having run on empty longer than the law allows and now inequitably dry of the optimistic helium that has kept him going. He slogs heavily home, lugging two leaden sample cases as the curtain rises.
It rises on Jo Mielziner's original skeleton set of Loman's almost-paid-for Brooklyn abode, and the forlorn woodwind wail which Alex North composed for the first production underscores the fact that, emotionally, this is the dark side of the moon.
We are, like Willy, home — savoring a sense of what serious theatre must have been like 63 years ago, here painted back into place with delicate, masterful strokes by director Mike Nichols, who witnessed Elia Kazan's famed production and clearly can approximate those old emotions that connected stage and audience. In a day when classic theatre is being dismantled and "re-imagined," it's a lovin' feelin'.
Willy Loman has never been away from us for long, it seems, making his Main Stem rounds with commendable regularity in the shaky forms of Lee J. Cobb (1949), George C. Scott (1975), Dustin Hoffman (1984) and, most recently, a Tony-winning Brian Dennehy (1999). Now, another Hoffman is heard from.
There was no star-entrance applause (thank God!) for Philip Seymour Hoffman — the audience, as noted, arrived "with it," ready for The Real Deal — as Willy weaves his way home again, "a little boat looking for a harbor." His blond locks silver-up under Brian MacDevitt's murky lighting, and he moves with a steady-as-she-goes, ungainly gait of a Charles Durning or a Victor Moore.
In his two previous, Tony-nominated outings on Broadway, Hoffman was a troubled son/brother — juggling two of them at once in back-and-forth rep in True West and playing Dennehy's alcoholic first-born in Long Day's Journey Into Night — so there was some initial concern that, at 44, he might be too young to play such an old ruin, but a few right, arthritic moves soon stilled that doubt.
Cobb was 38 when he originated the role of Willy Loman, but then he was a born character actor. A decade earlier, he played (with more zinc oxide than conviction) father to a seven-year-younger William Holden in the film of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy."
Miller conceived of Willy as a small man but eventually realized the actor he wanted for the part — Roman Bohnen — lacked the size of the character even though he fit the body. Like Cobb, Bohnen was a Group Theatre regular (Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy) — and, on screen, a subtle, often overlooked actor. His best bit was Candy, the ranch-hand whose dog had to be put down in "Of Mice and Men." He also fathered Jennifer Jones in "The Song of Bernadette" and Dana Andrews in "The Best Years of Our Lives." Loman would have made him a star. Losing the part and making the HUAAC blacklist stressed him into a fatal heart attack exactly two weeks after Death of a Salesman opened.
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