In one of the pivotal scenes in "Death of a Salesman," the great Arthur Miller drama from 1949, Willy Loman, a single-company traveling salesman of some 36 years standing, must beg for his job from his old boss' son Howard, whom he remembers as a baby he helped name.
It is a gut-wrenching scene for any older worker, especially for anyone toiling for someone younger and more shallow than themselves, or who has come to see that loyalty and compassion in American business don't count for much, even though it's all supposed to be about relationships.
To survive, Willy must try to swallow his last shred of dignity. "Death of a Salesman" is one of the great American plays of the 20th century, perhaps the great American play, not the least because so many of us have stood, or fear we will one day stand, right there with him.
It might be a cold-eyed employer. An uncaring child. A failing body. The grim reaper. But Miller understood that something like Willy's humiliation comes to all of us.
But in director Mike Nichols' current Broadway revival, which opened Thursday and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy and Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network") as Biff, you find yourself not only comprehending why the self-absorbed Howard, played by Remy Auberjonois, must let Willy go (that's not uncommon; Willy was never much good at his job) but actually preferring Howard to Willy.
That is uncommon. And it's a problematic element of this allowedly intense production of this formidable play.
Partly because Hoffman is still young for this role and partly because he's an actor with such a profound understanding of how to play misfits, loners and neurotics, his Willy is not so much tired and ground down by a quotidian, underachieving life but an unstable, unpleasant and deeply self-delusional man whose pain emerges not as weariness and struggle but fits of rage.
It is an exciting unpredictable piece of acting — even, on occasion, riveting — that most certainly flows from a great American actor and a piece of Miller's original conception of Willy, who, let's stipulate, is no great shakes as a human being. There are many aggressive people who delude themselves like Hoffman does here, and they often cut a broad swath through the lives of their family. We see all that here.
But we don't see a tragedy of a common man with representative magnitude. On the contrary, Hoffman and Nichols paint a picture of an unusual fellow who could go off half-cocked at any moment. The cumulative effect is one of interest but remove.
That would be more viable if Nichols were offering, overall, a revisionist take on this play with fresh theatrical rhythms and energies. But unlike, say, Robert Falls' Goodman Theatre-and-Broadway revival in 1999, which reconceived the play physically and formatively, Nichols' traditional production proudly uses a re-creation of the classic Jo Mielziner design, which inherently draws the production in more traditional physical patterns.
The veteran director has said Mielziner's work was so integral to the original creation of the script, it is really part of the play. It is, of course, a famously beautiful and adroit piece of stagecraft, so one sees Nichols' point.
But design, like all aesthetic elements, morphs with time. One can re-create the set but not what it had to say back in that time and place.
Garfield also comes with formidable acting chops — his internal pain in palpable — but this take on Biff suffers from some of the same problems. To put it simply, Garfield shows us a young man who is troubled, angered and deeply affected by the hypocritical rhetoric of his father. But he does not show us a young man who has gone out and failed. His visage is infused with articulate, attractive innocence; yet when you've been in jail, you have scars, scars that Biff needs, because it finally drives him to action.
Unsentimental and direct, Linda Emond is frequently affecting as Linda, whom she plays as articulate and intelligent.
The issue that emerges, though, is of a piece with the other problems. If Willy is this much of a jerk, so unsympathetic, why does this vital and seemingly aware woman plead for him? In the best moments, you start to think this is just due to the web of a marriage and the complexity of interdependency. But like much else here, it nags.
Nichols and his actor make compelling use of one of the Mielziner design's most powerful qualities — its lack of space. And there is some very fine work in supporting roles — most notably Bill Camp's richly sardonic Charley and Fran Kranz's wonderfully warm Bernard, along with Finn Wittrock's genial Happy.
But in this great father-and-son drama, Willy and Biff are connected mostly in neuroses — which is a big part of these iconic characters' lot, for sure, but never suggests they have a basis in the relationship of every dad and every lad who tries to love and please him.
"Death of a Salesman" plays at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York; call 212-239-6200 or deathofasalesmanbroadway.com
Twitter @ChrisJonesTribCopyright © 2015, RedEye