You might question the prudence of heralding the birth of a new theater space with a play about death. But given the longevity of Death of a Salesman, which debuted in 1949, the choice may not be such a gamble. The late Arthur Miller's drama about an aging traveling salesman with a serious case of burnout is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the modern theater, if not the greatest American play ever written. The production currently running at the new Waterfront Theatre breathes new life into the work -- but not without some wheezing.
In the role of salesman Willy Loman, Wayne Martens depicts a character whose dreams of prosperity have curdled into a daily struggle for survival. When the play begins, Willy has just returned to his New York City home from a business trip that was aborted when he almost ran over a kid in Yonkers. This is not the first near miss for Willy, we learn as he describes the ordeal to wife Linda, played by Grace Kiley. They agree it's time for Willy to stop traveling, to negotiate a position with his firm that will get him off the road. The decision coincides with the return home of peripatetic son Biff, played by Jason Lorber. Biff's older brother, Happy, is played by Michael Purdue.
Willy Loman is a confounding, and confounded, character -- a man drifting between the world he aspires to but will never inhabit and the one where he will spend his final days in failure. He's a tragic, complicated guy, and Martens clearly has the chops to take him on. He wears Willy's exhaustion convincingly as he shambles about, hanging his head. But one of the most intriguing aspects of Willy's character is that a dreamer still dwells within the defeated. What's more, truth-teller Biff tweaks a defensive, self-deluded demon that also lurks within his father. As if throwing a switch, Martens instantaneously delivers every side of Willy -- a testament to the actor's depth and his grasp of this role.
But Willy is a heavy character to carry for two-plus hours, and Martens buckles under the weight in later scenes. Having played Willy as thoroughly downtrodden from the start of the play, he's DOA by the time the lights go up on the second act. Martens stammers nearly every line and affects a mumbling delivery that is too lifeless to be engaging. For sure, Willy is on his last legs, but one might have liked to see him put up more of a fight on his way down. Director Clifford Ammon allows his leading man to wallow in some scenes, which slackens the pace considerably. Death of a Salesman is not a short play, but this production feels long.
The action moves along more briskly when Linda appears. In Kiley's skillful hands, we see the genius of Miller's writing come to life in a long-suffering wife and mother, drawn with more complexity than the postwar housewife stereotype would suggest. Though dutiful and hardworking, Kiley's Linda also draws on a deep reservoir of feeling to imbue scenes with humanity, and she hits a broad range of emotional notes. She knows that Willy is a small man, and lately not much of a provider, but she defends his good qualities, growing angry at her sons' disloyalty and disrespect toward him. Kiley asserts her character convincingly line after line, and makes smooth transitions to quieter moments, such as those with Willy.
Kiley and Martens are clearly a skilled pair, and their generally strong work keeps the play from drifting off course. And drift it might, given the inconsistency in other performances. Ammon has directed some players right over the top for almost campy moments, which creates periodic clashes of acting styles.
While Lorber and Purdue rarely connect credibly as brothers, Lorber carries a couple of pivotal scenes with aplomb; he recalls the thoughtful reserve of John Malkovich's turn in the 1985 film adaptation. Purdue, on the other hand, plays Happy with a relentless bemusement that doesn't quite square with a character who has a serious dark side.
Scott Renzoni, playing the nerdy neighbor Bernard as a young boy, hurtles onto the stage with the subtlety of that cartoon Tasmanian Devil. In a more somber scene as grownup Bernard, however, he shines.
Perhaps the strongest performance of all comes from Dennis McSorley playing Charley, Willy's next-door neighbor. McSorley's native Noo Yawk accent comes in handy in the role, reinforcing his confident onstage comportment.
Incidental production aspects also subvert the illusion of the play. The set is composed of a couple of tables and a few chairs, which serve multiple functions from scene to scene. The set's sparseness isn't a problem, but the generic, new-looking furniture seems out of place. The same goes for some costumes, in particular those worn by Biff and Hap during their boyhood scenes. Their brand-new play clothes practically gleam in the stage lights. The effect may not be distracting to any but the fussiest audience member, but the effect is not verisimilitude either.
Notwithstanding the fissures and seams visible in this staging of Death of a Salesman, the show serves Miller's work reasonably well. The parallels between Willy's dreams and delusions and our own collective strivings come through as clearly as the anguish on Martens' face. Getting an inside look at the new Waterfront Theatre adds to the appeal of this production. On the second night of its run, though, the play felt like parts of the new building -- still under construction.