The Loman family has too much love and not enough money. Never has that been more true than in director Miranda Cromwell’s revelatory new revival of “Death of a Salesman,” which opened Sunday at the Hudson Theatre after its initial engagement at the Young Vic Theatre in London.
The money thing we all know about from previous productions of Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic. The love part is more acute here, and it turns into a blinding curse with Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) enabling his older son, Biff (Khris Davis), and his wife, Louise (Sharon D Clarke) enabling her husband.
For her own good as a viable character, Louise has always been a little overly aware of Willy’s many failings. Her love takes the form of a series of lies to him about how special he is. Clarke disposes with all that flattery as soon as Willy is out of the room and she confronts Biff and her younger son, Happy (McKinley Belcher III), about the emotional and financial crisis that has gripped their father. As supportive as she is with her husband, Clarke’s Louise turns every scene with her sons into a tongue-lashing. It is a wonder either of them still possess a backbone having been raised by this woman. Tellingly, never is her love for Willy more evident than in these fights with her two sons.
In the play’s opening scenes, Pierce mines the humor in Miller’s writing, almost turning “Death of a Salesman” into a sitcom. The actor is setting us up to take us down quickly. All of Willy’s joyous American Dream jingoism is odd to hear coming from a Willy Loman who’s African American, and the genius of Pierce’s performance is how he uses that optimism to highlight the character’s self-deception. About halfway through Act 1, Pierce begins to give Willy a facial tick. After telling Louise how wonderful those customers are up in New England, he emits a puff of disgust from between clenched teeth.
Beyond the Loman family, Cromwell has cast most of the other characters traditionally. Now, when Willy has to go begging to his original boss’ young son, Howard (Blake DeLong), or an old friend’s lawyer son, Bernard (Stephen Stocking), it’s not only the difference in age that bakes in the humiliation. And there is something else that is now obvious but unspoken: Bernard and Howard have advantages as white men denied to Willy’s far-less-successful sons.
Howard and Bernard aren’t sympathetic characters as portrayed by DeLong and Stocking, but under Cromwell’s astute direction, they’re not stereotypical bad guys either. Bernard’s father, Charley, can emerge as too good to be true, but Delaney Williams’s enormously empathetic performance in the role makes for a brief but needed respite amid the growing despair.
Happy, the younger son, keeps showing off his biceps to say, “I’m losing weight!” Willy and Louise never notice, which may be one reason this forgotten son has escaped some but not all of the angst plaguing Biff. Belcher is so good you almost wish he had been cast in the more crucial role of Biff. Davis’ performance never really comes into focus until Biff’s brutal, final confrontation with his father. Especially mawkish are his attempts to play a teenager, a feat that Belcher and Stocking accomplish with apparent ease.
Cromwell puts on quite a show. Sometimes it’s too much of a show. Anna Fleischle’s expressionistic scenic design and Jen Schriever’s equally dramatic lighting sometimes have Miller’s very American characters wandering into “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
Never is this more distracting than with the presentation of Willy’s brother, Ben. Miller wrote him as a projection of Willy’s memories and thoughts of inferiority. If there is one actor who doesn’t need dry-ice vapers or spooky lighting or Mikaal Sulaiman’s eerie sound effects to signal his every entrance it is Andre de Shields. The way he glides rather than walks, the way his every line reading oozes with brotherly menace, De Shields comes to life as a phantom all on his own. He needs no tricks.