Mar. 7 CNY Playhouse: Death of a Salesman

Photo by Amelia Marie Swanson

Photo by Amelia Marie Swanson

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ rings up an impressive sale

A handful of gripping performances drill to the core of Arthur Miller’s emotionally draining classic

By David Abrams

It’s getting increasingly difficult to justify the term “community theater” when describing CNY Playhouse productions.

The area’s newest community theater troupe, which during its modest two-year history has already produced such gritty warhorses as the Jerome Lawrence/Robert Edwin Lee collaboration of Inherit the Wind and the stage version of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody Reservoir Dogs, has now tackled Arthur Miller’s masterpiece of American theater, Death of a Salesman.

CNY Playhouse pulled off an artistic coup at Friday’s opening night performance, such as one might have expected from a troupe twice its size and perhaps quadruple its budget.  When this Death of a Salesman ended, the phrase on people lips was not “What happened in Boston, Willy,” but rather “What’s happening at Shoppingtown, Dustin?”

Miller’s play, whose accolades include a Pulitzer Prize and five Tony Awards, chronicles the last 24 hours in the life of Brooklyn-based aging salesman Willy Loman.  Miller takes the audience on a disturbing journey into this troubled man’s life and his disturbed psyche, and then has them watch helplessly as Loman’s dysfunctional household implodes under the weight of the sum total of its failed dreams, busted expectations and unfulfilled promises.  In short, it’s a typical day in Brooklyn.  (I should know, I was born and raised there.)

Although the center of attention rests squarely on Willy Loman and his rollercoaster relationship with his favorite son Biff, Director Kasey McHale shifts a good deal of the weight of this drama upon the shoulders of Willy’s wife, Linda — played in masterful (if not virtuosic) fashion by Kate Huddleston.  Her gripping portrayal as the caring and excessively devoted wife to her loser husband is one of the highlights of this production.

The role of Linda is largely subordinate to the men in this play.  She serves as the Loman family’s moral compass, yet her purpose here seems more akin to a Greek Chorus from a classical tragedy — explaining her husband’s predicament, recounting his personal odyssey and describing his pain and suffering.  “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him,” Linda reminds her two sons and the audience.  “So attention must be paid.”

Attention was paid by Friday night’s audience, all right — much of it over Huddleston’s performance. Her transition from the quiet and submissive mother of two to the angry and fiercely protective guardian of her husband’s reputation and dignity was well paced and convincing.

Expectations run high for those brave enough to step into the iconic role of Willy Loman, and Keith Arlington has big shoes to fill including those of Lee J. Cobb (original 1949 Broadway production), George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Rod Steiger, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  To his credit, Arlington crafted a believable and largely convincing character that can stand tall alongside the good ones.

Loman, a 60-year-old sad-sack salesman looking to get a piece of the elusive “American Dream,” personifies those who preach that the journey to riches and success is a lot quicker on the express train than the local.  It’s the familiar Dollar and a Dream pitch, only Loman, perennially high on dreams but low on dollars, stubbornly waits at the platform for a train that has never stopped at his station and never will.  (His train runs not on electric power or coal, but hot air.)

In Loman’s myopic vision of success, what it takes to get ahead in the world is good looks, likeability and charm.  Talent and ability are much further down the list.  If this seems like a failed model, Loman has yet to learn this.  Nor does he learn from his never-ending loop of repeated mistakes.  Loman stays the course and sticks to the dream even after his company eliminates his salary, leaving the aging salesman helplessly dependent on commissions only.  Worse still, he doubles-down and bets that the same strategy that has failed him miserably will somehow work for his elder son, Biff.

Using stage mannerisms and vocal inflections that oftentimes reminded me of the grouchy but feisty Lionel Barrymore, Arlington crafted a sympathetic but captivating character whose mere presence on stage — aided by a double-breasted suit that seemed to grow shabbier with each passing minute — made it difficult to take my eyes off him.  And although Arlington occasionally overdid the vocal interjections and word-sighs suggested by Miller (“Oh boy, oh boy”), he conjured up a range of body language and stage deportment that at all times kept his Willy Loman thoroughly in-character.

The real tension in Death of a Salesman centers on the troubled relationship between Willy and Biff — and the denouement of their mighty struggle late in Act Two reached a level of artistic success far beyond expectations.

A good deal of the credit goes to J. Allan Orton, as Biff.  Orton’s character, once a promising high school student athlete on his way to the University of Virginia on a football scholarship, represents the sum of Willy’s hopes, dreams and expectations.  But Biff, though handsome and charismatic, is neither smart nor especially gifted.  When he fails to graduate after flunking math class, he loses his scholarship — and with it, Willy’s dream for his son’s success.  Biff spends his life aimlessly living in the shadows of his father’s unreasonable expectations, leading to bouts of kleptomania.

The challenge in this role is transitioning from a smothered life full of inadequacy and failure into an awakening that in Act Two will signal acceptance of his own limitations.  Biff’s emancipation begins midway through Act Two (Scene 8), where with great shame and humiliation he recounts to his brother the disastrous job interview and how he stole a pricey fountain pen from his interviewer (a subliminal grasping of a symbol of wealth).  But now, having reached rock bottom, Biff emerges a new man.  He abandons altogether the fantasy of a life built around father’s expectations, and at last accepts himself for who he is.

“I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been,” he tells his brother Happy prior to his father’s arrival at the restaurant for a dinner intended to celebrate Biff’s successful interview. Now empowered to stand up to Willy, yet torn to pieces by the prospect of extinguishing his father’s last hope for vindication from a failed existence, Orton’s performance crescendos to a tour de force that culminates in the cathartic confrontation with his father in Scene 13.  The floodgates are open at last — Biff denounces Willy as a hypocrite and announces that he will make a clean break from the family.

When he breaks down and cries, the weight of the world now removed from his shoulders, we cry along with him.

Another strong performance comes from Bill Lee, as Charley — the Lomans’ next-door neighbor who makes sense as often as Willy makes non-sense.  Though Willy is jealous of Charley (for daring to succeed as a self-employed businessman), Charley is, next to Linda, the only friend Willy has in this world.

Lee fashions a character that is at once credible and genuine.  I especially enjoyed his gripping scene with Arlington in Act 2 (Scene 6), where Charley gives an ungrateful Willy money to pay his overdue insurance payment and offers his now-unemployed friend a job that would not involve travel.  It’s clear that this is Willy’s last chance to save himself, but Willy cannot overcome his jealousy and turns down the offer — and in doing so places the final nail in his coffin.

“…For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life,” Charley tells the Loman family at the gravesite during the final Requiem scene.  “He’s a man… riding on a smile and a shoeshine… And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”

As Biff’s younger brother Happy (short for Harold) Loman, Patrick Kelly forged a believable character as the shallow and aimless womanizer who continues to believe his father’s pipe dreams, to the point where he vows to continue the “fight” after Willy has departed this life.  Kelly, who maintained a suave and self-assured manner around the women, projected a look of comfort in this role that never wavered.

The ghostly image of Willy’s well-to-do brother, Ben — who appears as flashbacks in Willy’s memory and vivid imagination — worked beautifully in William Edward White’s all-white three-piece suit illuminated by a white spotlight.  Curiously, White is dressed as a gentleman from New Orleans, and even speaks with a Southern accent (unusual for a character who lived in Alaska and South Africa).

The smaller roles in this production also clicked, led by Austin Arlington (Keith’s son in real life) as Charley’s son, Bernard; and John Krenrich as Loman’s ungrateful boss, Howard.  Navroz Dabu’s colorful set, comprising images of tall apartment buildings on all sides of the Loman house, is faithful to Miller’s description of the “towering, angular shapes” and adds credence to Willy’s constant complaining that their Brooklyn house is being swallowed by the expanding urban surroundings.

CNY Playhouse’s impressive production of Death of a Salesman will put you through the emotional wringer, just as Arthur Miller had intended when he penned this masterpiece some 65 years ago.  I’d gladly return to Shoppingtown Mall to catch another performance — only it reminds me just a bit too much of Brooklyn…

Details Box:
WhatDeath of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, directed by Kasey McHale
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)
Performance reviewed: Friday, March 7, 2014 (opening night)

Remaining performances: Plays through March 22
Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Length:  About 3 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets:  $15 to $20; dinner and show $34.95 (Saturdays only)
Family guide: Adult themes, but suitable for all ages

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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