theater review

A Death of a Salesman Where Disillusionment Has a New Edge

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in Death of a Salesman, at the Hudson Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

A good revival of a classic play, like a good cover song, doesn’t just transform the original but unearths new treasures that have been buried in it all along; a great revival or cover in turn inscribes these new values into the work ever after. And so, as with Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” any future rendition of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman will rightly be measured against the ambitions and achievements of the play’s stunning new Broadway revival, an import from London’s Young Vic.

It is not only the casting of the striving Lomans as a Black family that makes this Salesman a departure (the idea has been tried before, most notably in a 2009 production at Yale Rep starring Charles Dutton, though never on Broadway). It is also that the director, Miranda Cromwell, apparently taking inspiration from Miller’s original title, Inside of His Head, has rendered much of the play as a dissonant fever dream, with flying set pieces, often presentational acting, and lighting and sound and music that stress the work’s contradictions over its continuities. A mildly expressionist strain ran through all of Miller’s work, and Salesman is not, contrary to received wisdom, primarily a study in kitchen-sink realism. (There’s no sink here, for one thing—just a sad mini-fridge.) Most productions—like the last two on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols and Robert Falls—have rendered the play’s busy traffic between past and present, between fantasy and fact, in a more lyrical register.

Cromwell takes yet another approach, one that’s more self-consciously jagged. She kicks off the show with some literal lyrics, as most of the cast slowly enters to sing a chorus of “When the Trumpet Sounds.” But they soon leave forlorn Linda (Sharon D Clarke) alone on a small platform under designer Anna Fleischle’s suspended window frames, chairs, and tables, while the iconic silhouette of her tired old salesman husband, Willy (Wendell Pierce), hat on his head and a sample case in either hand, emerges from a doorway which is also emerging from the darkness. The message is clear: The world of this Salesman will form as easily as it breaks apart; so too the fragile bonds of family, place, position. “Life is a casting off,” Linda later tells Willy. This is the pitch, and this Salesman is selling it hard.

Some of Cromwell’s stylizations go a bit too hard, honestly. While Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, Femi Tomowo’s music, and Jen Schriever’s lighting are often very appropriately and effectively disorienting, and a few transitions blossom beautifully into quasi-musical numbers (and why not, when you have André De Shields in your cast?), a few of the director’s gambits play like just that, as gambits: A key flashback is segmented into bright-line subdivisions, as if clicking through a vintage slide carousel; one phone conversation has an offstage character’s voice played, awkwardly, by a clarinetlike instrument called a xaphoon.

Most of these discordant notes are right there in the original, and Cromwell and her team play them virtuosically. And this stress on the work’s essential disharmony, it seems to me, serves the crucial function of allowing the one new, thundering chord that is not in Miller’s original—i.e., race—to reharmonize the whole play’s meaning in a way that a more straightforward production could not. A purely period reading, for instance, would invite us to consider all that’s missing from this play about what a Black salesman, citizen, and mortgage-holder would actually face in 1940s America. Is Willy a predominantly white company’s rep to Black department stores, perhaps? Then who are the new folks crowding his Brooklyn view, and presumably driving down his own property value—white gentrifiers or Black migrants from the South? It’s a trap to start thinking this literally, as Miller’s play has nothing to say about these questions, and it is manifestly not a play about the toll of racial prejudice.

The closest the new production comes to naming the elephant in the room is a speech in which Willy is recounting to Linda the time he lost his temper and clocked a rival salesman who had uttered a slur in his earshot. In the original play, the offending word is “walrus”; in this production, the slur is unspoken, but it resounds to the back row.

Yet this loudly unstated resonance is everywhere in the new production—not quite enough, perhaps, to transform our understanding of Miller’s intentions, but powerfully enough to reshape our experience of some familiar beats. Indeed, it’s almost too easy to play the parlor game of ticking off the ways the Black Lomans (free band name suggestion, by the way) alter the sound and feeling of so many moments without changing a word: Willy’s line about a “law in Massachusetts about it” as he speaks to a white mistress; wayward Biff’s recurring run-ins with the law; Willy’s puzzlement at the way he has to work so much harder than “other men”; his invidious comparisons with his laconic white neighbor, Charley, whose brainy son Bernard vaults past his own sons once high-school football is no longer the playing field. And some moments jump out with appalling new implications: a white boss expects Willy to pick up his lighter and fire his cigarette; a waiter moves the Lomans to the back room of a restaurant, ostensibly for privacy.

Appropriately enough, the show’s metaphorical approach pays its biggest dividends in the lead performances: the devastating Pierce, a roly-poly tummler with unique blend of exhaustion and exhilaration; the unshakable Clarke, whose blue-flame simmer could burn down the theater; McKinley Belcher III’s callow, charming Happy and Khris Davis’s manic-depressive man-child Biff. This quartet’s scenes together flow as fleetly as in any Salesman I’ve seen, but they find fresh nuances in these complicated family dynamics, especially Davis and Clarke, who make the mother-son bond pulse with a heartbeat of truth in a household of lies.

That house of cards is where Miller’s original, with its critique of hollow, acquisitive American striving, intersects with Cromwell’s race-conscious reframing: The sales pitch that Willy has bought, tragically for him and his sons, is that what he calls “the greatest country in the world” rewards the smooth operator rather than the hard worker, the golden boy instead of the midnight-oil-burner. And the cold truth is that it tends to reward neither if you’re Black—or if it does, in spite of that fact—and that Black liberation and empowerment properly begins in this clear-eyed realization. “The man didn’t know who he was,” is Biff’s cruel epitaph. Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman has his number.

A Death of a Salesman Where Disillusionment Has a New Edge