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Shows Worth Seeing:

Death of a Salesman

By Arthur Miller
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

To me, the greatest marvel in this Salesman, the play’s fifth Broadway production, directed by Mike Nichols, is the way it reinforces the criticism of the play that most rankled Arthur Miller, and then makes the point seem like a virtue. I’m speaking of the objection (voiced by sophisticated critics from 1949 on) that Willy Loman is basically a pathological case—a mentally unhinged man sinking into fantasy and self-destruction and therefore a poor proxy for the average American working stiff. The half-dozen Salesmans I’ve seen (including those starring Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy) have sidestepped this issue by shading Willy toward the reasonable and sensible until the very end. Some have gone further and given him a vaguely “leftist” strident edge obviously intended to reinforce the play’s reputation as a gutsy political allegory about the cruelties of American capitalism.

Mike Nichols, bless him, has directed the play Miller actually wrote, rather than the one he said he wrote, and his lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, flourishes unforgettably under these circumstances. Hoffman is beefy rather than flabby (like Dennehy) and thus wholly believable as the former athlete Willy’s sons admire, and he uses that physicality as a ground for the character’s other aspects—commission-man dogsbody, bad friend, insensitive husband. More important, his distraction as Willy is intensely vivid and specific, shifting between boisterous bonhomie, dismal anomie, fits of ineffectual scrappiness, pathetic pleading, and much, much more. This is a sinking vessel from the beginning, and though that ought to be depressing, it’s actually exciting because Hoffman makes his journey so clear and palpable: one man’s losing struggle to free himself from an eddy of his own delusions. Place whatever leftist overlay you like on that struggle. It’ll surely fit fine because the massive weight of the play’s history makes us want to see it in those terms. The brain-wave of Nichols, Hoffman and company was that they didn’t need to be responsible for it.


The Lyons
By Nicky Silver
Cort Theatre
138 W. 48th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

I’ve never been sure how seriously to take Nicky Silver, mostly because I’ve never been sure how he takes himself. This is an author who trades on snotty, gay backbiting humor, and for better or worse, he’s good at it. Back in the 1990s, I had hoped that his glibness would prove a prelude to a more mature and substantial comic vision. His psychologically flimsy plays (The Food Chain, Pterodactyls) were stylishly perverse, but with the straw-figure caricatures and contrivances of The Altruists (2000) I finally had enough and abandoned him for a while. Now I find myself wondering again whether his unrelentingly bitter bitchiness might betoken a profound misanthropy after all. Silver’s view of humanity is bottomlessly dim, as dim as Pinter’s or Jarry’s, and with this new play, The Lyons, he has found a truly discomfiting dramatic canvas for it. Moreover, he may at long last have quipped himself into real subversiveness, since this is his first foray on Broadway.

The Lyons is a family drama whose mainspring is the death from cancer of the foul-mouthed, nasty-tempered father. No one—his wife (perfectly cast with Linda Lavin), his two grown kids—regards this event with the requisite sentimentality or gravity—a circumstance that could easily have turned into an occasion for mere sitcom-ish wisecracks. Instead, the family members all turn out to be insightful and persuasive studies in self-destructive narcissism. They crack wise, but each one is a monster, a different sort of prodigy of self-involvement painted with no more apology, comment or condemnation than Ubu was, even though none of them is caricatured. Every laugh in the two-hour show sticks in the throat, because what’s going on is so horrible, and you can feel the audience shifting uneasily even as it guffaws to prove how much it’s enjoying its expenditure. This unsettled atmosphere is well worth witnessing.



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