Willy Loman has been smashing up his car and gassing himself on the boiler for nearly 70 years. A little man with big dreams and bigger regrets, he has rarely stepped offstage since Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” opened in 1949. Now, Willy is back in his native Brooklyn, courtesy of Theater Mitu at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he’s acting pretty strangely — scurrying around in a wrinkly white mask, singing many of his lines, arguing with a refrigerator. Attention must be paid? Sure. Who doesn’t like a talking appliance? But this “Death of a Salesman” revival eclipses the classic instead of illuminating it.
It’s almost always a good time to resurrect Willy. An Everyman making a desperate tally of his small triumphs and greater disappointments, he speaks to those who feel left behind by social progress, caged in the sweet land of liberty. His story ought to resound just now. How many men and women like him punched ballots for Donald J. Trump? But the director Rubén Polendo’s unproductive, experimental staging is mostly just talking to itself, sidelining a larger conversation.
“Death of a Salesman” has never been a strictly realistic play. It describes the final hours of Willy, a traveling salesman flummoxed by the downward trajectory of his life and his livelihood. An early draft seemed to take place inside Willy’s skull, and the final one skids back and forth in time as Willy tries to pinpoint just where and when and how he went wrong. So the tragedy can stray from realism, though not perhaps as much as Mr. Polendo does.
Here, Happy, Willy’s younger son, is played by a punching bag, manipulated by a hooded, black-clad puppeteer. It’s a striking image, but ultimately a pretty bizarre one. What does a lightweight like Happy, a fabulist with a talent for bedding other men’s women, have to do with a weathered heavy bag? And why are all the women except Linda played by table fans? Yes, Miller had difficulties with female characters, but I’d like to think the secretaries and good-time girls do a little more than blow hot air around. In fairness, several of the men are played by fluorescent bulbs. That refrigerator? That’s next-door neighbor Charlie. Willy (Justin Nestor), his wife, Linda (Kayla Asbell), and his directionless older son, Biff (Corey Sullivan), are the only characters who warrant actors rather than domestic devices.
Maybe you can read this as a commentary on the capitalist ideals that have failed Willy, a man who, as Biff says, “had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” But “Death of a Salesman” endures not because of the tricksiness of its timelines or the perpetual resonance of its themes. It lasts because of Willy and the queasy surfeit of admiration and contempt with which Miller portrays him. There’s such ache in watching him fool himself and catch wise and fool himself again. Or there should be. But here the directorial flourishes, like the old-age masks, jam the flow of emotion. By the time Willy is speak-singing some of his sales advice (the piece is scored throughout by Ellen Reid and Ada Westfall), empathy has fled, and the show feels like the world’s saddest and weirdest production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Of course this “Death of a Salesman” is trying, and trying hard, but the gap between its aims and its peculiar ways of achieving them never gets bridged. Willy, as Linda says, wasn’t a great man or a famous man or even an exemplary one. Still, he’s one of the great characters the American stage has produced. He deserves more.
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