It's always a privilege to be in the company of an actor who doesn't worry about being liked by an audience, who refuses to ingratiate himself as a performer to soften the sharp edges of his character.
Charlie Robinson, star of the South Coast Repertory revival of "Death of a Salesman," is such an actor. His Willy Loman isn't out to win fans and influence producers. This veteran salesman is too bitter to put on a smiling face. Simple courtesies elude him. When his wife tells him she bought American cheese instead of Swiss, he growls in disgust. Can't a hardworking man count on his late-night snack? Even his refrigerator is thwarting him.
Arthur Miller wrote an essay on his masterpiece called "Tragedy and the Common Man," and the suffering of the bushed working class comes through loud and clear in this SCR production.
Robinson shuffles with a slight stoop, no doubt acquired from years of driving to New England and schlepping merchandise in heavy valises to indifferent department store buyers. His body and mind can no longer stand the strain, but with bills piling up and the mortgage not yet paid off, he's a prisoner of a system that has no use for the weary.
Directed by SCR artistic director Marc Masterson, this production is part of a movement of high-profile revivals in which American classics are reinvestigated by multiracial or all-black casts. (Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" have been explored in this way on Broadway in recent years.)
Great works are, of course, elastic enough to accommodate actors of various backgrounds without making race the predominant issue. The test of these revivals is the same for more traditional productions — how well are the characters portrayed and how persuasively is the story dramatized.
Masterson's "Salesman," which features a largely African American ensemble that perhaps makes the economic issues of the play more identifiable to a diverse 21st century audience, gets a mixed score overall. But as always with Miller's play, the emotion builds steadily to its shattering conclusion.
Certain directorial choices, it must be said, create obstacles. The principal one is Michael B. Raiford's set design, which suggests, with its contemporary framework of wooden slats, a modern vacation home far away from the Lomans' overdeveloped Brooklyn neighborhood.
Now there's no requirement of literal realism for a play that was initially going to be called "The Inside of His Head." But not only does the aesthetic seem misplaced but the abstract layout of the home is counterintuitive.
Why, for instance, does it appear as if Willy is getting a sandwich from his bedroom? More worrisome, why is he frozen like a statue when the scene moves upstairs to the bedroom of his two adult sons, Biff (Chris Butler) and Happy (Larry Bates)? Masterson's blocking leaves Robinson stranded in theatrical limbo.
The play fluidly moves between the past and the present, between Willy's memory and the current moment. Masterson obtains some pleasantly surreal effects by positioning characters in half-visible arrangements around the set, but the design scheme sets up unnecessary resistance to this fictional world.
The same can be said of Holly Poe Durbin's costumes, which appear to be pulled from some corny community theater production. (A few of the high school varsity outfits used in the flashback scene look as though they were inspired from the Marx Brothers' classic "Horse Feathers.")
My final beef with the production has to do with the accents, which are all over the map. Robinson and a very fine Kim Staunton, who plays Willy's wife, Linda, adopt a neutral manner of speaking. But strangely Butler's Biff sounds like John Malkovich, who was remarkable in the role opposite a stupendous Dustin Hoffman in the 1985 TV movie version. Bates' Happy speaks in an equally stylized manner that sometimes gives the impression of a jazz artist riffing wildly on an overly familiar score.
The supporting players offer an amalgam that is anywhere but Brooklyn. The exact address of this production, one can only conclude, is a rehearsal hall detached from any locatable reality.
This is a long inventory of surface faults, and it's rather disappointing to report. SCR has built its reputation on producing new American plays. In making the decision to mount "Death of a Salesman," the theater sets up expectations that the production will be, if not at the level of Mike Nichols' recent Tony-winning revival, at least in command of directorial detail. Why else bother?
Miller, fortunately, is there to rescue the actors from Masterson's inconsistent staging. As the conflict between Willy and Biff heats up, all other distractions melt away. Robinson and Butler make the dynamic between their characters their own. Robinson's Willy feels justified in his seething resentment toward Butler's Biff, for in his view his son has thr
Biff, his self-esteem at rock bottom, tries to communicate that he's no longer acting in anger, that he's just not the man his father puffed him up to be. Indeed, neither of them can live up to the salesman's hype. Chasing the ever-elusive American dream has left them too exhausted.
Even in an erratic production, "Death of a Salesman" has never seemed timelier. Of course it helps when you have an actor as uncompromising as Robinson, willing to sacrifice superficial charm for the hard truth of one of the American theater's greatest roles.
'Death of a Salesman'
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Sept. 29.