Playwright Arthur Miller died before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were invented, but he still managed to nail our obsession with getting likes.
“Bernard is not well liked, is he?” Willy Loman (Rob Morrow) asks in “Death of a Salesman” (playing now through August 4 at the Ruskin Group Theater).
Miller’s most famous play — it won the Pulitzer prize in 1949 – “Death of a Salesman” fell out of fashion for a while. In 2012, The New Yorker outright dismissed it as too obvious, too repetitive, and no longer worth seeing.
What a difference a few years make. The last presidential election has paved the way for the play’s revival, at least for this thoughtful production, directed by Mike Reilly.
Willy has taught his son to value his own “personal attractiveness” and popularity over everything, an idea promoted by our current commander in chief. One can imagine Willy nodding in agreement when Donald Trump hesitated to appoint John Bolton to his cabinet because Bolton’s mustache meant he didn’t “look the part.” Eventually, Trump changed his mind, but only because like Willy, he was running out of options.
“Bernard can get the best marks in school,” Willy tells Biff, a star football player, played with nuance by Robert Adamson, “but when he gets out in the business world…you are going to be five times ahead of him.”
The anti-intellectual bluster sends Biff straight into the wall when, unable to crib off Bernard, he flunks his Regents exam and loses his college scholarships. (Ah, that age of innocence, when there was no way to cheat on standardized tests and student athletes applying to college actually played the sport in question.)
Miller wrote this story on the brink of the post-war manufacturing boom, yet he somehow foresaw the link between technology and loss of jobs and dignity. In a scene that manages to be both comical and anguished, Willy begs to keep a meager version of the sales position he’s held for decades while his young boss – Darrin Hickok in a deft turn as a callous, mid-century tech bro – makes him listen to the banal chatter he’s recorded on his expensive new tape recorder. He advises Willy to buy one of his own and have “the maid” record his favorite radio program. Then he fires him.
Morrow, who plays the smugly amoral Adam DeGuilio on the Showtime series “Billions,” successfully transforms himself into the opposite here. It must take considerable stamina to inhabit such a desperate character, who swings wildly from past to present, self-delusion to terror. Morrow portrays Willy as a cornered animal who doesn’t want to bite, yet can’t stop himself lunging at those he loves. Lee Garlington is affecting as his strong yet helpless wife and Jack Merrill brings his trademark wry delivery to the role of Charley.
For two decades after the play was written, America was prosperous enough to lift all boats — both Biffs and Bernards — but when the machine of capitalism broke down, many of its wage slaves, like Willy, started clamoring for a gauzy past that had never been sustainable, lashing out, and ultimately harming themselves.
Anxiety over getting one’s children launched, growing old with no savings, the upheaval of gentrification on working class neighborhoods – Miller covers it all in this play.
The only current hot-button issue that’s absent is the mistreatment of immigrants. For that, he wrote “A View from the Bridge.”
“Death of a Salesman” will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 2 until August 4. The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue; tickets ($25-35) can be purchased by phone at 310 397-3244 or online at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Parking is free.