NEW YORK — Whenever an old warhorse of a play like "Death of a Salesman" is trotted out again onto a Broadway stage, its backers are quick to explain its relevance. It's hard to argue this time.
The still-vibrant, still-powerful story of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman returns to a nation now emerging from a Great Recession, awash with consumerism, disgusted by greed and where audience members are striving pointlessly to be "well liked" on Facebook.
Crisply directed by Mike Nichols and starring a heartbreaking Philip Seymour Hoffman, this "Death of a Salesman," which opened Thursday at the Barrymore Theatre, is now a gloomy 63-year-old mirror — the same age as Loman is in the play — held up to the world to prove that little has changed.
Hoffman is only 44, but he nevertheless sags in his brokenness like a man closer to retirement age, lugging about his sample cases filled with his self-denial and disillusionment. His fraying connection to reality is pronounced in this production, with Hoffman quick to anger and a hard edge emerging from his babbling.
"The woods are burning, boys, you understand?" he tells his sons — the lost Biff, played with pathos by Andrew Garfield, and the attention-seeking Happy, nicely played by Finn Wittrock. "There's a big blaze going on all around."
That fire is, of course, consuming the Loman family as Miller explores the nastiness behind the Norman Rockwell painting of the American Dream in late 1940s Brooklyn. Times are hard. Salaries are low. Bills keep coming. Love can sometimes be overpowering. Mere personality is no longer valid currency.
Willy Loman has reached the end of the line: An aging salesman who roams New England, he thinks the key to success is being liked, but he is more often laughed at behind his back. His sons — especially Biff, the apple of his eye — are a disappointment. He is contemplating suicide. After he dies, he figures, his funeral will be mobbed and that will prove he was worthwhile.
"I am known!" he insists, but seems to know that isn't enough.
His mind escapes to the past — moments with his long-lost godlike brother Ben (a typically moving John Glover), or with his adoring boys before they became men — when there were possibilities. Nichols has staged these as smartly as slightly odd hyper-real moments — the embellished memories of a depressed man looking for the wrong turn that led him here.
The skeletonized set with wood and steel giving way to abstract girders and silhouettes of trees — a recreation of the original Tony Award-winning scenic design by Jo Mielziner — takes a while to get used to but reveals itself as an aid to the plays meaning. Loman is in two worlds, after all, one real and one hazy, loosely connected.
Lighting by Brian MacDevitt is extremely inky, relying heavily on spotlights while the rest of the set remains as dark as depression. Projections of bright leaves thrown against the set at times gives it a jaunty, fall feel for flashbacks.
Garfield as Biff starts out a little too wise-guy-Brooklyn-boy but has locked in by the end and is breathtaking in his sobbing, self-hating commitment. Wittrock's Happy is a pretty good ladies man but looks too shellshocked much of the time.
Hoffman will deservedly get attention for playing one of the most iconic American stage roles with vigor, but this production gets its heart and soul from Loman's wife, played with ferocious love by Linda Emond. She is holding this family together with her nails, watching her husband fall apart, taking his abuse, soaring with his hopes, playing interference between him and her sons, and generally walking on eggshells.
"Why must everybody conquer the world?" she asks her husband, trying to soothe him. At another point she begs her sons to be careful around their dad: "Be loving to him because he's only a little boat looking for a harbor." But she can't stop the rot and hers is an inexorable march to widowhood.
There are several moments of humor — yes, even "Death of a Salesman" does have jokes — and some of Miller's wry observations in the late 1940s may bring a smile of recognition. Loman, for example, is fired by the son of his old boss, a younger man who is too distracted by his fascinating new tape recorder to care much about the pathetic man in front of him — a prescient nod to our fragmented, technophile lives.
In another scene, Willy rages about forced obsolescence that may be all too familiar to anyone forced to keep upgrading their computer operating systems or toasters: "I'm always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it's on its last legs ... They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they're used up."
Loman is all used up, too. Unlike this play, his death will be pointless. The dying salesman had told his brother earlier: "A man can't go out the way he came in, Ben. A man has got to add up to something." Loman has failed in his own assessment, but the play proves Miller has definitely not.