In the 2000 movie “Almost Famous,” the young aspiring music writer portrayed by a wide-eyed Patrick Fugit hangs on every philosophical nugget dropped by his idol, truth-spewing rock journalist Lester Bangs. At one point, seeking a little clarity while on the road with the band he’s covering, Fugit’s William Miller calls Bangs, played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Their art never lasts,” Bangs/Hoffman says of rock gods. “Great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love.”
Twelve years later, as Death becomes him, Hoffman is living that truth on stage night after night in a performance that, as I found out over the weekend, is a Broadway event in more ways than one.
Hoffman is Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winner by Arthur Miller that has earned Tony Awards for its original run and its revivals (in 1984 and 1999). As Clint Eastwood once said as Dirty Harry, a man has to know his limitations—so I’ll leave the full-on review for those critics equipped to make such judgments. What I can tell you, after seeing the play Saturday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on West 47th Street, is that this latest incarnation seems to resonate on levels beyond simple appreciation for the art.
Audience members—men and women—were openly weeping during the riveting final scenes involving Hoffman and Andrew Garfiend (Eduardo Saverin from “The Social Network”; and the next Peter Parker in this summer’s relaunch of “The Amazing Spider-Man”), who held his own as Biff, Willy’s tortured son who wants no part of following in his father’s footsteps. It’s not just that Mike Nichols—yes, the same Academy Award-winning director of “The Graduate,” not to mention “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Closer” and other Hollywood classics—has drawn the best out of a cast that includes Linda Emond as Willy’s wife.
It’s that this play, perhaps consciously and subconsciously, hits so close to home—even in a room filled with people who paid $130-plus for their ticket. In an era where middle-aged men are taking roundhouse rights below the belt—losing not only their careers but their identities—”Death” is more than a cautionary tale for America. It’s an all-too-real reflection of the uncertainty and palpable fear that is plaguing fathers and cursing sons.
That said, my guess is that the A-list actors in attendance Saturday night weren’t there to reflect on middle-class fear. They were there to see one of their peers at the top of his craft. Hoffman, who won the Best Actor Academy Award for his work in “Capote,” is an actor’s actor—whether tearing up the screen in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” or delivering nuanced brilliance in “Doubt” or the recent “The Ides of March” and “Moneyball.”
So it should have come as no surprise that we saw Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”), Josh Brolin (“No Country for Old Men”) and Denis Leary (TV’s “Rescue Me”) in the audience. What did have our row buzzing were the men sitting a few rows in front of us: Tobey Maguire … and Leonardo DiCaprio. The latter wanted no part of being seen by fans. DiCaprio sported a scruffy beard and wore a University of Georgia baseball hat pulled down low over his brow; he avoided eye contact at all costs. Maguire was just the opposite, hanging in the lobby during intermission and chatting up strangers. For comic book geeks like myself, his appearance marked a Spidey Summit of mammoth proportions—the future and former stars of “Spider-Man” in the house at the same time. Huge.
Lovers of theater, do yourself a favor: Go see “Death of a Salesman” before its limited run ends in early June. In addition to being the Broadway event of the year, you never know who you may bump into.
For more on the background of the play, check out this NPR story.