NEW YORK — Who would have thought that three American plays of World War II vintage would be among the hottest tickets on Broadway this spring, rivaling the musicals and giving the British some serious competition for the coming Tony Awards? Dramas by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller are attracting large audiences, even with prices of as much as $100 per seat for the O'Neill production.
You'd have to go back to 1956 to recall a presentation of O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" to equal this one, a play that is more often read than staged because of its four-hour-plus length. "Death of a Salesman," probably the most frequently mounted of Miller's works, has been enhanced by a pair of brilliant performances from its lead actors in celebration of its 50th anniversary, while "Not About Nightingales," a previously unknown script by the young Williams, is being staged for the first time.
The plays share more than being made in America. Each is poetic and focuses on men shut out of the American dream. In "Nightingales," Williams gives eloquent language to the convicts he portrays who long for freedom. The failures haunting Willy Loman ("Salesman") are expressed in metaphors that transcend his working-class background, while the derelicts depicted by O'Neill ("Iceman") recount their stories with the golden tongues of ancient bards who would mesmerize their listeners.
The Williams and O'Neill plays arrived in New York this spring via the London stage. British actress Vanessa Redgrave found a reference to the "Not About Nightingales" script, tracked the play down, and brought it to director Trevor Nunn, who produced it at the Royal National Theatre. That was followed by a run last June at Houston's Alley Theatre. "The Iceman Cometh" was the hit of last year's London season, winning Olivier awards for Kevin Spacey as best actor and Howard Davies as best director.
Ms. Redgrave would have been disappointed if she were looking for a woman's role by Williams to rival his Amanda Wingfield ("The Glass Menagerie") or Blanche DuBois ("A Streetcar Named Desire"), the playwright's great female inventions. Like O'Neill and Miller, Williams was writing about a man's world where there was little room for women, except as unobtainable objects or afterthoughts. The only exception is Linda Loman, Willy's wife, a matriarch of strength to equal the heroines of the ancient Greek tragedies.
Death of a Salesman begins with a door swinging open on the huge figure of a man, stooped over from carrying two heavy suitcases. Willy Loman enters to confront us in all his fatigue and terror. The premonition of dread deepens with every delusion that he will utter as fact.
Americans have not been able to put this man from their minds - not for the half century since he first burst into their consciousness. Nor can we avoid consideration of his skewed version of success because its pitfalls are so prevalent. Loman has picked up on the externals of popularity: a slap on the back, the judging of himself through someone else's eyes. The tragedy is that he has transmitted these false values to his sons.
The American Everyman that Miller created has transcended the theater to become a revered literary symbol. Willy crosses national boundaries to stand for the dilemma of the ordinary man in the modern era, basically good at heart but flawed because of his moral deficiencies.
The production crackles with the nuanced performances of Brian Dennehy as Willy and Elizabeth Franz as Linda. Mr. Dennehy delivers a portrait so detailed and fraught with contradiction that the tensions within are made visible. His signature gesture, a hand held to his head as if he had forgotten something important, is heartbreaking in its signal of vulnerability, even as he struggles to maintain his pride. Ms. Franz is magnificent in her firm determination to protect her husband.
Robert Falls, the director, has turned the images in Willy's mind into a blueprint for the staging. Mark Wendland elevates the setting of the modest Loman home to the universal by stripping it down and placing it on a turntable that Willy paces without ever reaching his destination. On the evening I attended, the audience sat stunned throughout the three hours, broken by only one intermission, as if seeing the play for the first time.
Unlike the familiar "Death of a Salesman," Williams's Not About Nightingales brings the surprise of a new treasure. Seeped in the violence and brutality of a prison ruled by a sadistic warden, the play follows an uprising by the inmates, who protest the punishments devised to keep them in line. The tortures within the walls are brought to grim life by director Nunn on Christopher Shutt's set, a dark, empty space backed on one side by a double-story wall of penitentiary cells with a window to the watery divide to freedom on the other.
Williams's piercing cry against injustice is a throwback to the 1930s, when it was written. A large number of plots and subplots are combined, along with the contrasting characters drawn from different segments of society: "Canary Jim," the sensitive young man working for the warden in hopes of a parole; Butch, the tough guy; Ollie, a black man imprisoned for stealing food for his family; and Shapiro, a Jew who talks about the suffering of his people.
At three hours, the play seethes with physical action, alternating with dream sequences pointing to Williams's later writing style. Colin Redgrave as the warden and Finbar Lynch as Canary Jim are standouts in the strong cast.
The Iceman Cometh is set in New York City in 1912, where O'Neill plumbed a world of sad, old men - and men aged before their time - existing in a perennial state of sleepwalking, induced by alcohol.
At 4 hours and 20 minutes, "The Iceman Cometh" is even longer than "Nightingales" but no less captivating. There's almost a cozy feel to Harry Hope's bar where the characters spend their days and nights. They speak with conviction about the future, but O'Neill calls their self-deceptions "pipe dreams," illusions that make reality bearable. The denials allow them to submerge their disappointments in a pretend-game about the possibilities of tomorrow.
The saloon is populated by men O'Neill had met in his travels: the anarchist revolutionary, the black man uneasy in his acceptance into white society, the young Harvard graduate squandering his good fortune, the nihilist philosopher, the business clerk caught cheating his boss, the policeman on the take, and more.
The exception is Theodore Hickman, alias Hickey, a good-time salesman traveling the easy road. His affection for the men who welcome his periodic binges and his subsequent ability to return to work have made him a hero at Harry's Bar. When he finally enters late in Act I, he has sworn off drinking and is on a crusade. He insists that his friends face "the truth" about their lives, leaving off the comforts that sustain them. By the end, Hickey's secret guilt has been exposed, returning the men to their semicomatose reveries.
Kevin Spacey portrays the antic Hickey, so manic that he seems plugged in to a high-intensity wire, yet edged with desperation. Director Davies has dug beneath the bleak tone to find humor in a man's ability to laugh at his own shortcomings. The superb company of British and American actors includes Michael Emerson, who made his off-Broadway debut several seasons back in "Gross Indecencies"; Paul Giametti as Jimmy Tomorrow; James Hazeldine as Harry Hope; Robert Sean Leonard as the doomed Don Parritt; and Clarke Peters as Joe Mott.