Review by Seth Rogovoy
The question of whether or not the family at the center of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Death of a Salesman,” is Jewish is not a new one. Although there are no overt references to the Lomans being Jewish (or any particular religion or ethnicity), no Shabbos candles or mentions of synagogue or rituals or Jewish food (unless you consider “whipped cheese” to be Jewish food), critics and scholars throughout the decades have speculated that the Jewish playwright Miller may have intended them to be read as such, planting subtle hints in the script, including references to their “difference,” with no explanation of just what makes them different, as being part of Willy Loman’s inability to succeed in business in spite of really trying.
Nevertheless, the play does take place in a milieu that could be Jewish, or at least ethnic, and Loman’s struggles and the particular dynamics that set this family apart may seem familiar to postwar, outer-borough Jews.
Plus, Miller gave Willy Loman a brother in the diamond business. Sort of.
Whatever the playwright’s intentions were, there are a few moments in the New Yiddish Rep’s superb production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Castillo Theater (running now through November 22) – in which the play is delivered in spoken Yiddish with an English translation in supertitles — when the acting, the emotion, and the staging are firing on all six cylinders, such that you become convinced that Miller had to have had in mind that this family not only was Jewish, but actually did speak Yiddish at home, so convincing and real are the rhythms and inflections that conjure up those emotions.
I count among these the opening scene, when Willy Loman (Avi Hoffman), surprises his wife, Linda (Suzanne Toren), by returning in the middle of a night from a sales trip. He complains of a sudden inability to drive straight. (Here, as throughout the play, the symbolism is comically over the top, which one must assume was Miller’s intention, and which is why “Death of a Salesman” is one of the 20th century’s most popular plays and probably the one most often taught in high school English classes.) The language of indirection, the shrugs and sighs and platitudes from Loman mixed with the worried but loving support of Linda – along with browbeating him into eating – read so convincingly of a middle-aged Jewish couple of a certain era that it’s not even a cliché. It’s truth.
And while Jews own no exclusive claims to family dysfunction, several scenes involving the Lomans and their sons, Biff, played with compelling anguish by Daniel Kahn (who did double duty by translating the play back into English from the Miller-authorized Yiddish version for the supertitles), and Happy (Lev Herskovitz) – especially ones that end in explosive arguments between father and son talking past in each other in ways that might as well be in different languages, so alien are they to each other — are as age-old as Abraham and Isaac and as recent as those I occasionally had with my late father, a well-meaning if ultimately unsuccessful CPA who never quite understood his son’s impractical pursuit of the writing profession. Miller sprinkles lines of dialogue throughout that have the characters, mostly Willy, referring to the difficulties they have faced gaining traction socially and business owing to being different, read here obviously as a reference to being Jewish, although one could imagine it applying to any other number of ethnicities, races, or orientations.
Miller of course had other things on his mind rather than just exploring the idiosyncrasies of postwar Jewish family dysfunction. His target was nothing less than the American dream and its false promise: the eros at the heart of its seduction (personified by Happy, a latter-day Casanova); and the illusion that every man (and this was a man’s world Miller was writing about) could successfully learn how to make friends and influence people. Some people just aren’t cut out for it – Willy Loman, for one – and others want nothing of it – hence Biff, a romantic figure who doesn’t even have the tools to know he’s a romantic (if he did, he’d realize his calling as a playwright), but simply buys into an alternative version of the American Dream – that of a cowboy fresh out of Brooklyn at home on the range.
The brilliance of this production, directed by Moshe Yassur, is manifold. It is steeped in the visceral reality of a believable family, one with palpable dynamics that work as kitchen-sink realism within a frame of the avant-garde naturalism that may well have been Miller’s intention all along. The play, in some sense, is a dream play, entirely a projection of Willy Loman’s mind and thoughts. It’s the most likely, if not only, scenario that explains the drama’s weirdness; at times it’s like a David Lynch movie, with events and characters from different times and places all being played out at once.
But because at the base of this dream, Miller stumbled upon or concocted such an archetypal story, the experimental formalism of his work (which must have seemed radical at the time, and still plays as such in this production so loyal to those original intentions) got shunted aside in favor of a sociocultural docudrama, such that even the enthusiastic theatergoer is used to thinking about “Death of a Salesman” in those terms, never having been exposed to a proper rendering of Miller’s dream.
The New Yiddish Rep thus scores in both exploring heretofore overlooked nuances in the family specifics, i.e., taking the long-discussed question about whether Miller intended the family to be Jewish one step further and seeing what happens to the play if they are (although the only overtly Jewish characteristic they are given is having them speak Yiddish at home and English out in the world among Gentiles, leaving one to wonder how different this might have been if, for example, the Lomans spoke Italian), and luxuriating in the framing devices that strongly suggest that what we are witnessing is the inner life and torment of a Willy Loman haunted by the ghost of a wealthy brother (perhaps merely a projection of Willy’s alter ago), hearing voices in crisscrossing conversations between present and past situations, and suffering a nervous breakdown caused by the return of the repressed.
None of this could have worked so well and packed the powerful punch it does without sterling performances by the strong and deep ensemble (standouts including the aforementioned Hoffman and Kahn as well as Shane Baker as next-door-neighbor Charley and Ben Rosenblatt as Charley’s son, Bernard), incisive staging, and brilliant technical aspects of the production, including Ellen Mandel’s sound design and score, featuring Michael Winograd’s evocative original clarinet solos.
The New Yiddish Rep’s “Death of a Salesman” should be seen by anyone serious about American theater – regardless of the Jewish question – as well as those who will simply thrill at the sound of a classic translated into Yiddish, with or without regard to its interpretive power of suggestion.
Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning cultural critic and the author of “The Essential Klezmer” and “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet.”
Notes about the production and ticket and run information from the program:
“Death of a Salesman” in Yiddish, produced in association with the multi-cultural Castillo Theatre, runs seven weeks from October 8 through November 22, at the Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street. The opening is set for Thursday October 15. Arthur Miller’s centennial is October 17.
Using the translation created by Joseph Buloff during “Salesman’s” Broadway premiere — the unauthorized production scored an instant success in Argentina during the play’s Broadway run and was subsequently authorized by Miller and given almost unfettered US staging rights — New Yiddish Rep’s production further adapts the Buloff translation. This is the first time the play in Yiddish is geared to a predominantly non-Yiddish-speaking audience. English supertitles are used.
In addition to Hoffman, the cast of 12 also features the Detroit-born and Berlin-based actor, composer and klezmer star Daniel Kahn (as Biff); vaudevillian and celebrated Yiddishist Shane Baker (as Charley); veteran actress Suzanne Toren as Linda; Lev Herskovitz, in his Off-Broadway debut, as Happy; Arielle Beth; Amy Coleman; Itzy Firestone; Ilan Kwittken; Ben Rosenblatt; Shayna Schmidt and Adam Shapiro.
For tickets, which are $50, call 866/811-4111 or visit www.castillo.org, or the Castillo Theatre box office. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at 7pm; Saturday at 2pm & 7pm and Sunday at 2pm with an added performance on Tues October 20 at 7pm and no performances on Wed/Thurs November 4 and 5.