Pierce and Clarke portray those eternal symbols of middle-class American bewilderment and disillusionment, Willy and Linda Loman, in this sizzling, if at times ponderous, revival, which officially opened Sunday night at Broadway’s Hudson Theater. In addition to the virile actors who play their disappointing sons Biff (Khris Davis) and Happy (McKinley Belcher III), Clarke and Pierce set a humble abode in Brooklyn trembling with all the unsettling power of shifting tectonic plates.
To the annals of “Salesman” families that began in 1949 with Lee J. Cobb as Willy and Mildred Dunnock as Linda under the direction of Elia Kazan, this production adds a black household to the head of a man with classically broken American dreams. Pierce, best known to the public as the cigar-munching Bunk on HBO’s “The Wire,” is now asserting a claim to the highest rank of the nation’s stage actors as a bewildered Willy drowning in lies, delusions, and self-loathing.
His ideal partner is Clarke, most recently seen on Broadway as the internally enraged housekeeper in “Caroline of Change.” Linda can seem like a hand-wringing doormat at times as Willy seeks an outlet for his frustrations with a traveling salesman’s job that leaves him mentally exhausted. However, Clarke and director Miranda Cromwell have other ideas. Her Linda is not so much a lamb as a lioness, trying not so much to facilitate Willy’s pestilence impulses as to protect him from his own worst fears about himself.
‘Death of a Salesman’ Gets Its First Black Linda Loman On Broadway, And She’s A Dynamo
Through this approach, Linda becomes a character as tragic as Willy herself. Her faith in Willy (who pathetically cheats on her) is as misguided as Willy’s belief that the company he gave his life to will save him from despair and exhaustion. The scene where Willy has to beg his white boss (the great Blake DeLong) for a break from the road and a job in the home office is tinged with panic and racism on this occasion. It culminates in a small, jarring moment: As Willy extends his hand goodbye, DeLongs Howard reaches for a cigarette lighter instead. Willy’s humiliating status as a non-entity – as well as his eventual fate – are both sealed.
‘Salesman’ has always been a fascinating game that crushes the gut, a work of hallucinatory flight shrouded in a shroud of countertop realism. Cromwell originally staged this “Salesman” in London with Pierce, Clarke and co-director Marianne Elliott. The supporting cast is newly hired for New York, and includes the wonderful combination of Delaney Williams (another “Wire” alum) and Stephen Stocking as Charley and Bernard, the warm and stable father and son next door.
In trying to underline that the piece deviates from naturalism, the conceits used here sometimes draw a little too much attention to themselves. On Anna Fleischle’s deconstructed set—an assortment of window and door frames and furniture suspended by wires—some visual cues feel exaggerated. We are introduced to the idea of Willy’s exaggerated adoration of Biff, for example in a tableau that makes Biff the subject of a photo shoot of a soccer hero, complete with camera flashes. It also feels like overkill to add “ethereal cabaret singer” to the demands of the spectral role of Willy’s supposedly charmed brother, Ben, to the theatrical hilt played by a bejeweled André De Shields.
The underlining of Femi Temowo’s blues is a welcome addition, landing on the ears as a rich evocation of New York in the 1950s and giving a plaintive embroidery to the overarching sadness of the proceedings. For the production is at its best when it simply lets Miller’s characters unfold the fears and grievances that multiply under the unbearable pressure to achieve financial security.
Davis and Belcher forge an explosive sibling symbiosis, fueled by the self-aggrandizement gene that Biff and Happy inherited from their father. It’s left to the anguished Biff, unable to bear the weight of his father’s unrealistic expectations—or even his own—to erase Willy. Davis carries out the task with devastating fervor. As Biff makes his crushing statement, “I’m a dozen and so are you!” the words echo with both Oedipal resentment and a swipe at the almighty goat’s anchorage. No, not even a cent. They’ve been reduced to just 10 cents in Biff’s indictment.
The moving universality of Miller’s greatest drama will be perceived by every audience member who has ever worried about a checking account overdraft, or worried about the stress work puts on a loved one, or wondered if she, in whatever area of their efforts, really measure themselves. The sad irony that Miller built into “Death of a Salesman” is especially powerful now, when our world so often feels like it’s hanging by a thread. Because even that vital measure Americans strive for—paying off their last mortgage—isn’t enough to support Willy. “Salesman” is an elegy of false hope, a requiem for a breadwinner.
Death of a seller, by Arthur Miller. Directed by: Miranda Cromwell. Sets, Anna Fleischle; costumes, Fleischle and Sarita Fellows; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman; original music, Femi Temowo. With Lynn Hawley, Grace Porter, Chelsea Lee Williams. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Through January 15 at Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44th St., New York. 855-801-5876. salesmanonbroadway.com.