Philip Seymour Hoffman (Willy Loman), photo by Brigitte Lacombe/New York Magazine
There were four of us at dinner right after the show. We agreed the new 7 p.m. Broadway curtain time was good for hungry people and old people, and we were old and hungry. We were three old friends from college and one friend’s wife, one theatre director,two lawyers, a professor, all theatre lovers. We had a lot of catching up to do.
My friend Alan is a recently crowned "Champion of Justice" in San Francisco, but as he is wired for his anxieties, he says he’s afraid his younger colleagues are making fun of him behind his back. They call you the walrus we said. But you are very well liked.
The other male lawyer, the lion of this gang, was on his Blackberry most of the dinner. They know him up and down New England. The finest people. He’s a partner in a large imploding law firm where there are more empty desks every day. The woods are burning, boys.
His wife, a former judge, teaches law downtown and is deeply depressed about how the Court may undo the health care law. In her opinion the average caliber of a Supreme Court Justice these days is zero.
The New York Times reports that more than 600 people have posted their passionate responses to the new Broadway production beautifully directed by a guy older than us. Critics from major newspapers across the country have reviewed it. We are part of a national conversation about a play whose every moment, every phrase lodges in the memory, even and especially in old memories. Attention must be paid.
I'm telling the champion he'd have been a great Bernard, the nerdy kid who follows Biff around in high school but grows up to become a tennis playing lawyer. The champion admits he followed a mutual friend of ours around freshman year because he was a quarterback. When he introduced him to foreign films and the guy became an intellectual, Alan was disappointed-- he didn't need another egghead friend; he needed a quarterback friend. He would have carried his shoulder pads.
"Why did we choose this show?" groans the lion, not looking up from his Blackberry.
The champion makes the case that Howard, the man who fires Willy, is a sympathetic figure. He's in a tough place, he says. Willy is washed up and Howard wants to let him go as gently as he can. "Howard is horrible," I say, “he plays recordings of his kid reciting state capitals while his old employee is standing there at the end of his tether.” The lion agrees with me, but the professor agrees with Alan and so does Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune critic, who says in this production you actually prefer this very human Howard, whereas Willy comes across as "an unstable, self-delusional man whose pain emerges not as weariness and struggle but as fits of rage." That's the problem with this production, Jones says. No, that's the problem with Willy, says the lion, "because Willy's an asshole"---in one grand sweep dismissing half a century of debate on the tragedy of the common man. I'm finding it hard to argue with him, remembering another friend who said the same thing about Oedipus. But Oedipus at least solved the riddle of the sphinx whereas Willy never has one clue and isn’t even a guy you'd especially want to have a burger with.
Two of our party have ordered the meatloaf and the lion wants extra spinach.
The champion tells us his parents went to see the play when it opened in 1949, and every man in the audience had a hat and a brown overcoat like Willy's, and that when the lights came up after the final curtain every man in the audience was in tears. And this in a time when men did not cry. There weren’t many manly tears at the end of the new production, or at least I didn’t see hear or see or feel them. Ben Brantley said the same thing in his review. It’s a different time, suggests the professor. She really liked Philip Seymour Hoffman’s intensity, and so did I, and so did Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times, while also finding his performance too monochromatic. I agree with them both: Hoffman was so concentrated, economical and restrained that his Willy wound up too constricted. A constricted Willy can be a problem. But so can a loose one.
Like Brantley I too almost wept for joy when the curtain rose on Joe Mielziner’s set, re-created from the original production, and when the autumn leaves came out in the flashback scene the past shimmered in a hallucinatory golden light. Ravishing, those big elms. First thing we gotta do when we get time is clip that big branch over the house . . . We get a rope and sling her around, and then we climb up there with a couple of saws and take her down.
We all loved the scene in the restaurant, and the great scene in the kitchen where Willy doesn’t learn he is only a dime a dozen but does see his son loves him. As the Rocky Mountain representative and nothing if not critical I felt obliged to point out Andrew Garfield doesn’t look like he’s ever been west of 8th avenue, and he’s too skinny to bust through a line, and he looks too young to have failed at anything. But so what, the kid can act, we all agree. Everyone liked Linda Edmond who handled her arias with smoke and fire, but she didn’t cry luxuriously at the end. I explain with quiet authority that Miller says Linda cries luxuriously, and I should know. But it turns out I am wrong, it’s Stella who cries luxuriously at the end of that other play; Linda simply sobs more fully, released. So I might be right in thinking Linda’s release into tears could have helped the audience with the ones that didn’t come. But maybe this Salesman wasn’t meant for tears: it’s luminous, lucid and contained in its immaculateness.
Over dessert, there’s some talk of endings, almost inevitable these days. The champion says he’s been wondering what he will say at the lion’s funeral. The lion says he’s only asking Beyonce and Oprah to speak because he wants more people at his than Dave Singleman got, and that was hundreds. Things will be sad on a lotta trains for months after that.
It’s time to go. We pay the check; we are free and clear. We are the last ones to leave, and for a moment the empty room at Joe Allen’s looks like Frank’s Chop house two blocks away over on 6th avenue, where Willy had his collapse. I’m looking for him under the tables. The lion calls our attention to the show posters on the restaurant’s wall of flops: The Moose Murders. Dude. Here is Where I Belong.
“Seeing the play at 71 is different from when you were 55,” says the champion. “Then it was about a father and a son. Now it's about the death of a salesman.”
“Where was that line about I could have been a contender,” roars the lion. “I missed that.”