By Stanford Friedman
Death of a Salesman in Yiddish; sounds crazy, no? But here at the Castillo Theater, the New Yiddish Rep has put together a compact and dynamic staging of this American masterpiece. The company had recently produced a well-received Yiddish version of Waiting for Godot, but this is a riskier undertaking. Godot barely makes sense in any language; Salesman is one of the most accessible prose poems ever written for the stage, full of heightened language (“Attention must be paid.”) and easily digestible double meanings (“I don’t have a thing in the ground.”). Happily, thanks to the English language super-titles displayed on the rear wall of the set, this Toyt fun a Seylsman is captivating for both modern drama scholars and Arthur Miller virgins alike. First-timers benefit from being able to read along with the action, perhaps noting how certain keywords and motifs are repeated. Veterans meanwhile can approach it like an opera, appreciating the telling expressions and inflections of this fine ensemble, whether they know the words or not. To complicate things, the super-titles are not from Miller’s original script, they are the English translation of Joseph Buloff’s Yiddish adaptation. But, give or take a “mensch” and an “oy,” the difference is barely noticeable.
Historically, the physical size of your basic Willy Loman has ranged from petite to x-large. Contemporary examples would be Dustin Hoffman and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In this production, the 5’7” Avi Hoffman not only completes the Hoffman trifecta, but manages the amazing feat of shrinking away to nothing. We first see him in the classic pose, bent over and nearly overwhelmed by his two large suitcases full of samples, returning home from yet another failed business trip. A tired man at the end of his rope, his job has passed him by and his two sons, Biff and Happy (Daniel Kahn and Lev Herskovitz), have grown up to be “a vagabond and a womanizer.” Meanwhile, his wife Linda (an excellent Suzanne Toren) can only wish, hope and scold her sons. By the time Willy screws up enough courage to ask his towering boss Howard (Adam Shapiro) for a new position, his arms are clearly too short for his suit jacket. Even his mistress (Amy Coleman) seems to loom over him as he clings to her, proclaiming his loneliness. Ultimately, when Biff forces him to face the reality that his life has been consumed by failure and wrong moves, and that he played a large part in making Biff “a nobody,” Kahn towers over a seated Hoffman, nearly crushing him into a tiny ball. The last we know of Willy is just the sound of his car, echoing across a darkened stage.
The play addresses many, well o.k., addresses ALL the major choices in the life of a man and explores his place in the colliding worlds of business and family. A winning staging can be a tall order, but director Moshe Yassur is up to the task. Even the production’s shortcomings seem to work in his favor. With nothing but a table and chairs for a set, and limited costumes and lighting, the action flows seamlessly and quickly from scene to scene, giving a kinetic energy to Willy’s inevitable collapse and making his many fugue-like flashbacks blur into and out of reality with a mesmerizing air of confusion. Add in the strangeness of hearing a familiar work in a foreign tongue, and the audience becomes distanced from the goings-on just enough to fully appreciate the whole tragic scope of the proceedings.
Death of a Salesman – By Arthur Miller, Yiddish adaptation by Joseph Buloff; Directed by Moshe Yassur.
WITH: Avi Hoffman (Willy Loman), Daniel Kahn (Biff), Shane Baker (Charley), Suzanne Toren (Linda), Lev Herskovitz (Happy), Arielle Beth (Letta), Amy Coleman (Woman), Itzy Firestone (Ben), Ilan Kwittken (Stanley), Ben Rosenblatt (Bernard), Shayna Schmidt (Miss Forsythe), and Adam Shapiro (Howard).
Scenic design by Mark Marcante; costumes by Gina Healy; lighting by Gertjan Houben; Mark Brystowski, stage manager. Presented by the New Yiddish Rep at the Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street. 866-811-4111, www.castillo.org, Through November 22nd. Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.