Showtime's `Salesman' is a must-see

January 03, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Director Robert Falls' 50th anniversary production of the Arthur Miller masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman," was the big winner at last season's Tony Awards ceremony, taking top honors for best revival, best actor (Brian Dennehy) and best supporting actress (Elizabeth Franz).

The awards were well-deserved. Falls' interpretation cut right to the emotional heart of Miller's depiction of the devastating decline of a middle-aged salesman deprived of the job by which he has defined his existence.

While Dennehy delivered a towering and, at times, terrifying portrayal of salesman Willy Loman, the real revelation was Franz' depiction of Willy's wife, Linda. Fleshing out a character too often played as a doormat, Franz found new depth and courage in Linda's steadfast belief in a man who no longer believes in himself. Her final scene, at her husband's grave, was among the most moving performances this critic has ever seen.

The Broadway production closed in November, but it has been preserved by Showtime, which will broadcast the three-hour telecast at 8 p.m. Sunday, with repeat broadcasts scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 12, 5 p.m. Jan. 22 and 3: 30 p.m. Jan. 28.

Filmed with nine cameras before a live audience at the production's final performance, TV director Kirk Browning's telecast doesn't have quite the cinematic grace of the 1985 CBS telecast of the Broadway revival starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich -- though theatrically, I found the more recent revival superior.

The new telecast, however, is far more involving than a mere static record of a stage show. That's largely because the camera work keeps us centered on the characters -- the close-ups are a particular bonus -- not pulling back and showing the audience or full stage until the curtain calls.

Besides Dennehy and Franz, the splendid performances include those of Arena Stage veteran and Tony nominee Howard Witt as Willy's exasperated neighbor, Charley, and Ted Koch as the Lomans' overlooked playboy son, Happy.

Kevin Anderson, who originated the role of the favored son, Biff, in the Broadway revival, was also a Tony nominee. In the telecast, Biff is portrayed by Anderson's replacement, Ron Eldard, who captures Biff's anger and frustration, although some of his reactions seem a bit overwrought on the small screen.

This is a minor quibble, however, with a production that was a major triumph. Theater-lovers, set your VCRs.

Innovative theater

The prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville has been experimenting with the new and different in recent seasons. This season's innovation isn't as offbeat as some of last year's experiments, but it still qualifies as a venture into uncharted waters.

The latest innovation is "Back Story," a dramatic anthology by 18 established playwrights. The collected monologues and scenes explore events in the lives of a pair of siblings in their 20s. Among the contributing playwrights are a number whose work has been seen in Baltimore, such as Constance Congdon, Shirley Lauro, Craig Lucas, Donald Margulies and John Olive.

The festival, which runs from Feb. 29 until April 8, will produce a half dozen new plays by a mixture of festival alums and newcomers, including: "Tape," by Stephen Belber, about a reunion of two old friends, set at a film festival; "War of the Worlds," by Anne Bogart and Naomi Iizuka, a look at Orson Welles, the myth and the man; "No. 11 (Blue and White)," by Johns Hopkins University graduate Alexandra Cunningham, a play based on the true story of a debutante and a talented athlete whose friendship is challenged by a terrible event; "Anton in Show Business," by Jane Martin, a madcap satire about turn-of-the-century American theater; "Big Love," by Charles L. Mee, an updated play about love, inspired by Aeschylus' "The Supplicants"; and "Touch," by Toni Press-Coffman, a drama about the disappearance of a loved one.

Repeating a format introduced last year, the festival will also offer five phone plays, in which theatergoers overhear conversation by picking up receivers in phone booths in the theater's lobby. The phone plays are: "The Reprimand," by Jane Anderson; "Show Business," by Jeffrey Hatcher; "Tresspassions," by Mark O'Donnell; "Lovers of Long Red Hair," by Jose Rivera; and "Beside Every Good Man," by Regina Taylor.

Now in its 24th year, the Humana Festival has produced more than 230 plays, including D.L. Coburn's "The Gin Game," Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" and John Pielmeier's "Agnes of God." Arthur Kopit's "Y2K," produced at last year's festival, is currently running off-Broadway.

The final component, a bill of three 10-minute plays, is yet to be announced. Call 502-584-1205.

Maryland Arts Festival

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