There’s a lot of talk going on these days about “modern male malaise,” that aimless, frustrated feeling straight white men are supposed to be stuck with now that feminism has made them redundant. Just ask Stiffed author Susan Faludi—or the men who wrote American Beauty and Fight Club.
Seems to me, though, that this idea is hardly new, and it may not have all that much to do with whether women are competing for the soulless corporate jobs these same men complain about. Modern male malaise is no more than a postmodern variant of the unease that threatens to stifle the 34-year-old Biff Loman in Arthur Miller’s wrenching classic Death of a Salesman—which, it must be pointed out, is arrestingly virile for a play written half a century ago. Just goes to show that some ideas are eternal. Or, maybe, that we just never learn.
The Salesman staging Jim Petosa has mounted at Olney Theatre is nothing if not respectful—of the play’s stature in the American theater canon, of the everyday profundity of its concerns—and it is in many ways as unsettling as Miller could have wanted it to be. But there are unpolished edges—enough of them that you can still see the production’s mechanics, watch it working to move you. Ideally, Salesman should be a freight train, a monstrous thing that hits you so hard you forget the mechanics of it even if you’ve seen them.
In American Beauty, the bombshell teen who awakens Kevin Spacey’s long-dormant lust for life finally gets around to confessing her deepest fear: that she’s merely ordinary. Ordinary is precisely what Salesman protagonist Willy Loman (Traber Burns) is, and under all his bluster, all his talk of marketing heroism and of being well-liked, he knows it. He’ll never admit as much, though: Burns’ Willy is a back-slapping bluffer, loud-voiced and hearty and most so when he’s least sure of himself, and he’s spent his entire life pretending—to his long-suffering wife, Linda (Anne Stone), to his younger son, Happy (Christopher Michael Bauer), and to Biff (Christopher Lane)—that he knows the system and how to work it to his advantage.
The truth, of course, is that Willy has bought in to the quintessentially American idea that personal worth is defined by professional success, and he’s transmitted that poisonous notion to his sons, along with the quaint ’40s idea that personal charm and a dash of sports heroism are what make leaders of men. About halfway through the play, you begin to fear that they’ll be forever crippled by that indoctrination, and then you realize that’s precisely what Miller wants you to fear: It’s when Biff at last realizes how empty those ideas are that he’s free to confront his own failings and, finally, to call Willy’s bluff.
Willy folds when that reckoning occurs—which is what makes the play a tragedy. What makes it an American tragedy is that Miller offers a glimpse of hope for Biff’s redemption; Biff has learned enough from his father’s failings that he may at last be able to succeed on his own terms, at some calling he actually wants to pursue. (What’s clever about American Beauty is that it gives Willy’s part to Annette Bening’s hard-driving real-estate agent; I can’t decide if it’s kind or just a cop-out that the film offers her that same shot at redemption.)
At Olney, Lane is a strong presence, humane enough that you leave the theater thinking Biff’s chances are pretty good. Not so for the womanizing, fast-talking Happy: Bauer’s portrayal, intentionally or not, is of a shallow, erratic, and not particularly self-aware fellow who’ll probably meet an end even less noble than his father’s.
Stone is appropriately warm and maternal as Linda, and she acquits herself well in the famous “Attention must be paid” speech, though she does have a little trouble integrating Miller’s most lyrical moments of prose with the essentially natural rhythms of the surrounding dialogue. And she seems unable to summon the same authority at Willy’s grave, robbing the play’s final scene of the kind of visceral punch that would send audiences up the aisles on shaky knees.
Petosa and the play are beautifully served, though, by Jim Kronzer’s darkly gorgeous set, with its visual comments on the clash of individuality and industrialization, and by a range of deft supporting performances (especially that of Daryl M. Lozupone, who scribes a graceful character arc from adolescent nebbish to wise, sorrowful adult as next-door neighbor Bernard).
As for Burns—well, he certainly commands the part, and the stage, and he’s unmistakably a tragic figure. He’s not always a sympathetic one, though that may be a valid choice: If an actor can make us hurt for a Willy we don’t necessarily like, his triumph in this monumental role is all the greater.
But a great Salesman should make us sympathize with Willy and identify with him, too; we have to see ourselves within his outline and recoil at what we see. There are only shadows of that universal picture in the character Burns and Petosa have created at Olney, and that means that their pitch isn’t quite perfect.
That the play is still powerful is a tribute to what they do right, and to Miller, and to the ugly fact that our society is still as sick, if not more so, as the one the playwright looked askance at 50 years ago. CP