Arts & Culture » Theater

Attention Must Be Paid

Muddy Waters mounts a classic on a shoestring. The Rep...doesn't.


When the angst finally ended and Willy Loman was free at last, the applause that greeted the curtain call for the Muddy Waters Theatre mounting of Death of a Salesman rolled across the stage like a boulder. There was no air in this applause, no hint of reservation or mere politesse. The audience verdict was rock-solid: Arthur Miller's saga of dreams and evasions, which opened on Broadway 58 years ago this very week, has lost none of its crushing power. The play remains essential viewing, immediate and involving.

Is Salesman an American tragedy? Critics and essayists have long debated that question. This staging by Milton Zoth doesn't much care. Zoth directs the story for melodrama, which smolders in abundance. The emphasis here is on the howls of anguish and the whiplash reversals that occur in the Loman household between husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother. Why the undercurrent of moodiness in Biff, the prodigal son? Why Biff's churlish distance from his father? Such questions continue to engage an audience. Wherever I looked, viewers literally were sitting on the edges of their seats, totally absorbed.

How to approach Willy, a character so contradictory that he is both a "damned fool" and a "troubled prince"? Physically forceful actors often bulldoze their way through the text, with the result that they overwhelm the role. Here Peter Mayer (who is of slighter build) allows himself to be overwhelmed by the role. He's at his best when at his most panic-stricken. "What happened in Boston, Willy?" someone asks, and Mayer freezes like an ice carving that has been out in the sun for too long.

Mayer often chooses to emphasize Willy's feeble anger rather than his bewilderment. Questions get asked like statements. The actor frequently jabs his finger into the air, as if it's an exclamation point. Most writers will tell you that exclamation points are most effective when used sparingly. It's those moments when Willy is seated and gazing up at his oppressors through hollow eyes, or moments like the one when Willy's last vestige of self-confidence simply crumbles in the pathetic confrontation with his young pup of a boss, that Mayer's Loman evokes the pitying depths of despair.

Mayer is supported by solid work. Carrie Houk's low-key Linda is effectively free of theatrics. This Linda is a study in forgiveness. Midway through Act One, Houk utters the play's most memorable line, "Attention must be paid," with a conviction and urgency that would have us believe she's making her plea for the first time. Tyler Vickers emanates an appealing fecklessness as the self-delusional son Happy, and Myron Freedman brings clear-water clarity to Charley, Willy's exasperated friend and neighbor. There's no embellishment here; Freedman simply reads the role, and we're able to see Charley as everything Willy is not.

Joel Lewis' eruptive portrayal of the estranged Biff is acting at its most organic. In exposing the pain of a lost soul, there's a sense that Lewis is not acting at all. Late in Act Two, after Biff makes a disillusioning discovery about his father, Lewis' face collapses like a rotting pumpkin. My guess is that Lewis doesn't even know it's happening, yet it provides an indelible image. This is acting so rooted in truth that it goes beyond performance.

No apology is needed for the fact that this is an inelegant staging, but does the production have to rub its cheapness in our faces? When playing spaces are too constricted for the actors to move, when furniture is wrong for the period, when actors are wearing ripped costumes, when a fedora makes one actor look downright foolish, I want to scream at the director or producer, "Can't you see these glaring flaws?" Yet by evening's end, as Mayer and Lewis are locked together in a stunning dance of death, the flaws become secondary, because what is happening onstage is transporting us to the purest kind of theatrical epiphany.

Don't wait for an epiphany in Wendy Wasserstein's Heidi Chronicles, the current offering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The production begins agreeably enough; the misadventures of budding art historian Heidi Holland are laced with easy laughs. But by the time these chronicles finally lurch to their verbose conclusion, a viewer has the right to leave the theater feeling deceived, for there has not been a single truthful moment in the entire evening.

According to the press release, Heidi "brings wry wit and grace to the shifting ground of American women's aspirations through the eras of 1960s idealism, 1970s turbulence and 1980s materialism." That sounds good; who wouldn't want to see that? One can only wish this release had been written before Wasserstein wrote the play. It might have helped her to understand what she was trying to say. What she wrote instead is aggravatingly shallow.

For starters, Wasserstein relies on music to do her work for her. But you cannot play a fragment of a song by Sam Cooke or Janis Joplin or John Lennon and think you're making a statement. For the better part of the evening, Wasserstein is unable to end a scene unless someone is singing or dancing or listening to music. (Ironically, late in the play when music leaves Heidi's life, the dialogue grows so tiresome that we forgive the earlier tonal excesses and wish they'd return.)

When the singing stops and the talking begins, Wasserstein repeats the same error. The mere mention of Eugene McCarthy's name does not tell us squat about the American condition in 1968. A wan joke about Bert Lance does not inform, much less define, the Carter 1970s.

But at least the older viewers will have heard of McCarthy and Lance. Wasserstein is obsessed with references to fictional offstage characters that we never meet and about whom we could care less. There's no subtext in her writing; anything she has to say is spelled out on the line. Since most of the lines seem to be more concerned with garnering a laugh than conveying an emotion, what begins pleasantly enough eventually grows tiresome.

There comes a point where it's hard to know whether to be more irritated by the script or the production. In this Rep staging, which was directed by Michael Evan Haney, nearly every female character (apart from Heidi herself) is portrayed as a doofus. Little surprise, then, that when surrounded by an array of goofballs, we embrace Heidi as an oasis of reality. Effie Johnson is instantly likable in the title role. She delivers a warm, persuasive and even endearing portrayal. But the production is so overloaded in Heidi's favor, it's easy to grow impatient with her constant moping. By the time she complains (in one of those incredibly long monologues that are the bane of contemporary theater), "I'm envying women I don't know," you want to rap her in the mouth and force her to listen to an endless loop of Steve Lawrence singing "I've Gotta Be Me."

Heidi travels from Chicago to New Hampshire to Michigan to New York. But it really doesn't matter where she is, because her universe is always the same: She's merely a character on a stage, waiting to make another costume change or sing another song. Director Haney keeps that stage as bare as possible, which seems to be an apt metaphor for his production.

It's perhaps unfair to compare this glib survey of 24 years of American life to a masterwork like Death of a Salesman, whose story plays out in 24 hours. Nor would it be fair to compare the shows in terms of production values. The budget for Heidi's costumes alone was probably greater than the entire cost of Salesman. But when it comes to seizing the belly or probing the heart, when it comes to eliciting compassion or shattering a viewer's complacency — well, there's no comparison there either.

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