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Death Of A Salesman
By Arthur Miller
In Yiddish with English Supertitles
Translated by Joseph Buloff
Directed by Moshe Yassur
Castillo Theatre 543 West 42nd St., NYC
Reviewed Oct. 16, 2015 by Larry Litt
It’s been recently said that Arthur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman’ isn’t a Jewish tragedy. So what’s the point of a Yiddish translation? Or for that matter translating it into Spanish or Russian or any language other than the original English? After all isn’t it a play about the cruelty of American Capitalism with its not so subtle delusions and temptations that often brutalize its weaker victims?
Avi Hoffman’s Willy Loman, the low man on the anonymous but ubiquitous company’s roster of salesmen, is a passionate self-deluded narcissist.Avi plays Willy on the edge of despair without a moment’s release. He can’t tell the truth because truth means he’s nothing in his value system. So what Hoffman does is make Willy ashamed from the earliest moments. He doesn’t want to face his family. Yet he must. There’s no place else to go. Everywhere in his world Willy faces rejection unless he brings joy and gifts. He’s run out of both.
What is so startling to me is the comparison to Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa is another traveling salesman, the sole support of his poor though pompous family. Like Willy, Gregor Samsa despises his boss who doesn’t appreciate him. Kafka writes about the unhappiness of sales commission slaves who sell on the road. Willy too is once again is working on commission after thirty years on the road. An insult in any salesman’s status. Something isn’t right in both Willy’s and Gregor Samsa’s worlds. Some beast gnaws at the ‘world is my oyster’ creed of the traveler.
Miller gives us family characters whom are enablers both for Willy’s past triumphs and current failures. Suzanne Toren as Willy’s adoring but clueless wife Linda just wants everyone to be happy. Willy has tried to make her life with him pleasant when it’s not difficult. When it’s not a delusion.
Willy’s troubled ne’er-do-well son Biff torments Willy. He can’t get steady work, he failed math in high school, gave up football to become a roving tramp. Daniel Kahn infuses Bill with regret and cruelty while holding back affection. Onstage together Biff and Willy project glorious emotional moments directed by the master of Yiddish theatre Moshe Yassur. Watching these two men acting in a strange tongue yet grabbing at my emotions is a superior theatrical achievement.
Avi Hoffman squirms on stage much like the vile insect-like vermin that Gregor Samsa has overnight become. Hoffman’s Willy is completely uncomfortable in his suit, his everyday business skin. Just as Gregor Samsa is unable to make his new carapace get out of bed and off to work, so Willy can’t say or do the right thing to save face. Gregor Samsa jumped out the window to escape his family and boss. Willy ends his downfall in another American dream, his revered automobile. “Metamorphosis” could be called “Death Of A Salesman” and vice versa.
Happy, often called the Other Son, is charmingly played with wit and enthusiasm by Lev Herskovitz. We like Happy because he’s Happy. Herskovitz plays him not having the native intuition to grasp the meaning of Willy and Biff’s tragic trauma.
Shane Baker, as Willy’s loyal, successful friend Charley, uses his acting skills to hold his character in place. Baker’s underplaying is notable because he lets Hoffman’s Willy have both his friendship and pride. A rare feat considering their power relationship.
In my opinion “Death Of A Salesman” is a universal indictment of Capitalism as is “Metamorphosis.” Are either of these tragic masterpieces Jewish? Yes because all tragedy is Jewish. And all comedy. This drama in any language is our most feared American story. It reveals terribly uncomfortable truths, contradicting the happy American Family myth.
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