Reviewed by Bob Greene
with photos by Jonathan M. Smith
The authors of the 1930s and 40s were clairvoyant. Elmer Rice’s vision of a mechanized workplace in The Adding Machine still rings true; the sexual and social mores of any Tennessee Williams play are more poignant than ever; and the specter of age and the mistaken American dream lives and breathes on in Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman. Ernest Barzaga and a team of young artists took the latter play and ran with it. When one considers the current unemployment rate; the astronomical amount of college grads not finding suitable work for their expensive degrees; and simply the lack of integrity in the workplace, you are that much more chilled by the foreboding realities of Arthur Miller when spoken by those more junior than the roles.
Nay-Sayers will only have about 10 minutes before they eat their words with this production. Lavishly designed and executed, Barzaga’s production is a marvel to look at, making it easy to slip into the magic of this play.
The praise doesn’t stop with the set and lights. The complement of young actors all does true justice to the project.
The titular “salesman” is of course Willy Loman. Ian Cooper turns in a brilliant performance. Never overdone or caricatured, Cooper brings a painful reality to Loman. While his hair and make-up were completely not period, his manner and delivery allowed us to simply accept this as a man down and out and sinking fast. His hirsute face gave us the feeling he was farer gone mentally than the play suggests and his natural stage ability made this all work.
Of equal strength is Anna Paone as his long suffering overly-devoted wife, Linda. Frank Langella once cited that it’s easy to just scream on stage and not have anything under it. Ms. Paone certainly did. Every look and breath told a deep story and her agony at the play’s tragic end was felt by all. You truly were concerned for “mom” now that dad was gone.
On that topic, David Levi and Aaron Ogle as Happy and Biff – respectively – turned in excellent showings. Often over-analyzed, Levi and Ogle played the earthiness of the roles and built a fine camaraderie, which sustained through the end. Levi could have run with the famed restaurant scene even more and Ogle could have been darker in the bitter edge of Biff but both carried themselves excellently. Brilliant star-turns came from David Melgar as the “geeky” Bernard, who grows to be an asset to his family. His hair-style – again – like Cooper – was a serious distraction but his talent allowed us to look the other way; Gianni Damaia as neighbor and best friend Charley was mature and solid with an excellent speaking voice and inner life; Caycee Kolodney was the only one on the stage when he appeared as Uncle Ben. Taking more than a few cues from Williams’ Big Daddy, his stage presence was simply the best; and as Howard, Alexander Gheesling’s young appearance added the most chilling factor as he portrayed today’s parable of the workplace. His icy delivery against the imploring of Cooper was enough to induce tears. Eileen Weisinger’s erotic gestures and laugh as Loman’s hotel dalliance provided surprising shock value to the production. This added darkness was a very clever touch. The supporting ensemble in a play of this era usually disappears but, again, the commitment of Elie Kenwood, Hunter Wolfson, and Alli Green was superb and each scene had true craftsmanship and urgency.
As mentioned, make-up and hair seemed to be an after-thought, which is surprising considering the entire production’s attention to detail. Had they all simply focused on 1940/50s period make-up, their acting ability would have done the rest. Surprising what a little hair gel and rouge can do.
The John Cullum stage is huge by off-off Broadway standards and Ernest Barzaga (as assisted by Molly Wilder), moved his artists around it masterfully. Bringing his actors to a boil with such depth of feeling is also a feather in his cap.
Last note to Mr. Barzaga … wear long pants when giving the curtain speech.
The aforementioned Nay-Sayers will only be able to leave Death of a Salesman wondering what these fine artists will do for an encore.