NEW YORK -- Four years after World War II ended in victory for the United States and its allies, an affirmation, some believed, of American exceptionalism, the beginnings of the Cold War were souring postwar optimism. The "age of anxiety" had begun, incited in 1949 by the Soviets' successful atomic bomb test and the communist forces' victory in China.
While patriots from President Harry Truman on down vowed to defend the imperiled American dream, a young New York playwright challenged that dream in "Death of a Salesman."
Arthur Miller's masterpiece portrayed the nation's touted economic system as soul killing and heartless and its family values as empty as salesman Willy Loman's order book. At a time when America's virtues were seen as triumphant, the play branded them phony and self-deceptive.
It opened Feb. 10, 1949, directed by Miller's then-friend Elia Kazan with Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, the exhausted salesman who has worn out the hopelessly optimistic cliches of his profession.
Sixty-three years later, director Mike Nichols has delivered a nearly picture-perfect revival of the '49 production, starting with the same Jo Mielziner set, Alex North music and traditional curtain that rises to open the play at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
It's an eerie theatrical experience at first, like being an observer in a mythical Arthur Miller museum where time has been frozen.
As in the play's original opening, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy slowly shuffles on to the indistinct lines of the Mielziner set, which is the barest suggestion of an ordinary Brooklyn home nearly lost among new apartment buildings to be greeted by wife Linda, played by the appealing Linda Emond.
Mr. Hoffman, dressed in suit and vest and crowned with a gray shock of hair, the same look Lee J. Cobb presented audiences in 1949, speaks in a similar gravely voice, raising the question, "Is this just a respectful revival of a great but dead work?"
As the action builds in the first act, however, and the self-delusions and lies crawl to the surface, the Nichols-Hoffman "Death of a Salesman" shakes off the dust of the original production to stand on its own.
Despite a few casting mistakes, especially the fresh-faced Andrew Garfield as Willy's world-weary son, Biff, and the too-shrill Molly Price as Willy's Boston girlfriend, Mr. Nichols' subtle direction of Miller's critique of American capitalism takes on fresh meaning in these years after the 2008 economic crisis.
The initial irony of the '49 production -- that the hard-working, loyal Willy was tossed aside despite prosperity -- has been reshaped by history into a more universal view that finds no one is safe when it comes to the bottom line.
It appears that Mr. Nichols understands that universal nature of "Death of a Salesman" and has simply left the play alone to speak for itself. There's no need to tamper in what would be misguided efforts to update the play to 2012.
The final confrontation between Willy and his family is one of the most brutal moments in American theater when the truth shatters all of the Lomans' illusions and leaves Willy no other way to save his family but to get in that car ...
For those who know the play, this new production retains the power to devastate the spirit. There are no mourners at the funeral save family and friends, attention was not paid, and at least one Loman will continue to pretend he's a success.
"A salesman is got to dream, boy," says Charley, Willy's only friend, but a dream isn't enough, says Arthur Miller. A salesman has got to make money, too.
"Death of a Salesman" closed Saturday. Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Garfield were nominated for Tony Awards and the production earned a nod for best play revival. The awards will be announced June 10.
Another classic American play from the 1940s is in revival on Broadway, Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre through Aug. 19.
The production lacks the impact of "Death of a Salesman." Its cast, headed by Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche DuBois and Blair Underwood as Stanley Kowalski, gloss over the dark side of Williams' grim, cynical portrayal of Southern hypocrisy while emphasizing the physical aspects of the play, especially the shirtless Mr. Underwood.
Ms. Ari Parker is too upbeat and comical as the fragile wilted flower of the Old South, yet she still dominates this primarily African-American cast. Wood Harris, recalled as the sinister Avon Barksdale of HBO's "The Wire," is barely believable as Blanche's suitor, Mitch, while Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella, is overpowered by her older sister.
Death and dishonor should have damaged Blanche beyond repair, but Ms. Ari Parker is downright cheerful about going to that asylum.
Bob Hoover: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published June 3, 2012 4:00 AM