Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' is reborn on Broadway

Death of a Salesman Play by Arthur Miller. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid, John Malkovich. Directed by Michael Rudman.

There are rare occasions when a revival achieves the status of a renewal. Such is the case with ''Death of a Salesman,'' which stars Dustin Hoffman as Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, the role created by Lee J. Cobb in 1949 and played most recently on Broadway by George C. Scott in 1975.

It is no reflection on such earlier probings of the troubled Loman psyche to report that Mr. Hoffman creates an entirely new image of the Miller commercial Everyman. The most obvious distinction is physical. The late Mr. Cobb was bulky and heavyset. So is Mr. Scott. Without reducing Willy's emotional dimensions, the physically smaller Mr. Hoffman in a sense magnifies the challenges facing Willy ''way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine'' (in the words of his friend and neighbor, Charley).

When Willy makes his first entrance - unexpectedly returning home from the aborted New England sales trip - there is something especially poignant as the little man lugs his two enormous sample cases across the stage and into the Loman home. Mr. Miller reportedly has restored the word ''shrimp'' and certain other allusions that designated Willy's stature. The changed emphasis creates an unmistakably new perspective.

In his best days, this Willie was a jaunty little barker. His sales trips were great adventures in his shiny red Chevrolet as he conquered territory for his firm. Willie strove to be not merely liked, but ''well liked.'' He could, he boasts, park his car in any town in New England ''and the cops would watch it like it was their own.''

At this week's Wednesday matinee press preview, the Broadhurst Theatre audience was well-represented by school-age young people. It is a measure of the power of this modern American classic over a new generation of playgoers that ''Death of a Salesman'' held them enrapt for its two long acts.

Much of the credit for this achievement goes, of course, to Mr. Hoffman's extraordinary performance as Willy. It is a revelation. The actor preserves Willy's facade so resolutely and with so few outward signs of cracking that the breakdowns, when they do occur, are the more devastating. In the crushing interview with the cruelly dismissive boss Howard Wagner (Jon Polito), Willy's rage is matched by his helplessness. Everything suddenly crumbles. However false they may have been, the dreams were his life. And the dreams have been demolished.

Co-starred with Mr. Hoffman at the Broadhurst are Kate Reid as Willy's devoted but clear-eyed wife, Linda, and John Malkovich as elder son Biff, the onetime high-school gridiron star whose disillusionment with Willy is but one of several reasons for his failure to find himself as a man. Miss Reid's steadfast devotion as Linda achieves a measure of compassion and a kind of magnificence that matches and complements Mr. Hoffman's accomplishment.

Mr. Malkovich's Biff presents the spectacle of a man whose curious bent for larceny is part of a mixed-up personality perpetually grappling with some truer instincts. Complicating matters is the fact that the very candor that could clear the air in the father-son relationship is what Willy can least bear to hear.

''Death of a Salesman,'' which won both the Pulitzer and New York Drama Critics' Circle Prizes, is a drama of relationships whose unfoldment is as complex as the play's construction. In addition to Biff and his woman-chasing brother Happy (Stephen Lang), there is the ghostly figure of Uncle Ben (Louis Zorich), who struck it rich from Africa to Alaska but for whose high-stake ventures Willy would never sacrifice the security of his salesman's job.

Beyond the family itself there are neighbors Charley (David Huddleston) and his son Bernard (David Chandler), the school grind, whom the Loman males scorn but who grows up to be a successful lawyer. There is the aforementioned Howard Wagner (Mr. Polito), the hard-nosed son of the boss Willy went to work for 36 years before the play opens.

Among others, there is the key figure of the Nameless Woman from Boston (Kathy Rossetter), whose compromising presence in Willy's hotel room when Biff unexpectedly visits his father caused the youth's traumatic disillusionment.

The performance as a whole has been superbly orchestrated under Michael Rudman's staging. It bespeaks an overall achievement that makes ''Death of a Salesman'' a renaissance rather than merely a worthy revival. The eloquent realism of the production extends to the scenery by Ben Edwards, with its rise of apartment facades broodingly lit by Thomas Skelton. The costumes are by Ruth Morley. The production uses Alex North's haunting incidental music.

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