Theater review: Death of a Salesman at Long Beach Playhouse

Ed. Note: The following review was updated on June 2, 2015 to correct the playwright’s name to Arthur Miller.

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography Karl Schott plays Willy Loman in the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage production of Death of a Salesman.

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography
Karl Schott plays Willy Loman in the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage production of Death of a Salesman.

To fully appreciate the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage run of Death of a Salesman, you have to forget you ever saw the 1985 film starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich. This is a difficult task, but it’s just not fair to compare the fine acting of the former with the Golden Globe-winning performances of the latter.

Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman, the hapless aging traveling salesman, is fraught with an agonizing sense of tragedy, whereas Karl Schott is less intense and, therefore, less painful to watch. So, too, in a comparison of John Malkovich’s rendition of errant son Biff and that of John Conway. In the film, Biff carries with him the threat of emotional violence in every line he delivers, whereas the Playhouse’s Biff is someone you might invite to dinner, provided he stayed on his side of the table. The film carries with it the rawness and cruelty of Richard Burton’s and Liz Taylor’s performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a movie that should only be tackled if everything in your world is going right. The Playhouse’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Carl daSilva, conveys the power behind playwright Arthur Miller’s masterful script without making you feel like you’ve been beaten and left at the side of the road.

Premiered on Broadway in 1949, Miller’s play is as poignant and pertinent today as it was when it debuted. Just as a generation struggled with the growth of consumerism and corporatism at the end of World War II, so, too, we are now faced with all that plus job elimination due to automation, wage stagnation or decline for many Americans, increasing job insecurity and an even more egregious gap between rich and poor than was experienced by post-war workers. In short, Willy Loman’s story of the easily-cast-to-the-garbage-heap employee is the tale we hear all too often or are experiencing ourselves in 2015.

Linda (Harriet Whitmyer), Willy’s long-suffering wife; Biff (John Conway), the son who showed so much promise but, in his mid-30s, is shiftless and marginally employed; and Happy (Zachary Salene), the younger son who works as a low-level cog in the corporate machine and fritters away his paychecks on women and booze, all give convincing performances. The actors play both young and 20-years-older versions of themselves. Some of the best moments are when Willy is remembering hyper-idealized scenes with his teenage sons, who at least in his reveries, beamed in his presence.

But Willy is 63 and, oh so tired of a life on the road, especially since he’s no good at selling and perhaps never was. He has memories– or are they delusions?– that his customers love him, no, adore him. He is seriously slipping– talking to himself and to the ghost of his dashing and wildly successful brother Ben (Skip Blas), lunging at his boss and truly believing that he should be spared the corporate ax because he was there at the naming of his boss when the latter was a newborn. When he does finally do himself in– yes, the “death” in the title is more than a spiritual demise– no one besides his nuclear family and his neighbor Charley (Gary Douglas) is there.

I couldn’t help but remember how, when my mother died, I asked the executive director of the institution that my mom had headed for 30 years if she’d like an obit for an email blast. Absolutely zero interest, even when I suggested that there were still people alive who would remember her and that I would write it. That message addressed posthumously to my mother was the same as Miller’s to Willy: Go ahead and give your life blood to the company. It will suck your every drop and, when you’re dried up, cast you off. There are plenty of Willys to take your place.

Death of a Salesman continues on the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage through Saturday, June 20. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $24 for adults, $21 for seniors and $14 for students. Tickets may be purchased online at lbplayhouse.org or by calling (562) 494-1014. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St.

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