Pierce and Clarke portray those eternal symbols of middle-class American bewilderment and disillusion, Willy and Linda Loman, in this crackling if sometimes overthought revival, which had its official opening Sunday night at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. Alongside the virile actors playing their disappointing sons, Biff (Khris Davis) and Happy (McKinley Belcher III), Clarke and Pierce set a humble Brooklyn abode to quaking with all the disquieting power of shifting tectonic plates.
To the annals of “Salesman” families that began in 1949 with Lee J. Cobb as Willy and Mildred Dunnock as Linda under the direction of Elia Kazan, this production adds a Black household headed by a man of classically broken American dreams. Pierce, best known to audiences as the cigar-chomping Bunk on HBO’s “The Wire,” now cements a claim to the top rank of the nation’s stage actors as a baffled Willy drowning in lies, delusions and self-loathing.
His ideal partner is Clarke, most recently seen on Broadway as the inwardly raging housekeeper in “Caroline, or Change.” Linda can sometimes seem a hand-wringing doormat as Willy looks for an outlet for his frustrations over a traveling salesman’s job that leaves him psychically depleted. Clarke and director Miranda Cromwell have other ideas, though. Her Linda is less a lamb than a lioness, seeking not so much to enable Willy’s bullying impulses as to try to protect him from his own worst fears about himself.
This approach establishes Linda as a character as tragic as Willy himself. Her faith in Willy (who cheats on her, pathetically) is as misplaced as Willy’s belief that the company he has given his life to will rescue him from desperation and exhaustion. The scene in which Willy has to beg his White boss (the terrific Blake DeLong) for a respite from the road and a job in the home office is on this occasion tinged with panic and racism. It culminates in a small, shocking moment: As Willy extends his hand in farewell, DeLong’s Howard reaches instead for a cigarette lighter. Willy’s humiliating status as a nonentity — as well as his ultimate fate — are both thereby sealed.
“Salesman” has always been a fascinatingly gut-crushing play, a work of hallucinatory flight enveloped in a shell of kitchen-sink realism. Cromwell originally staged this “Salesman” in London with Pierce, Clarke and co-director Marianne Elliott. The supporting cast is freshly recruited for New York, and includes the marvelous pairing of Delaney Williams (another “Wire” alum) and Stephen Stocking as Charley and Bernard, the warm and stable father and son next door.
In seeking to underline the play’s departures from naturalism, though, the conceits employed here sometimes draw a bit too much attention to themselves. On Anna Fleischle’s deconstructed set — an assortment of window and door frames and furnishings suspended on wires — some of the visual cues feel excessive. We’re introduced to the idea of Willy’s exaggerated worship of Biff, for instance, in a tableau turning Biff into the subject of a football hero’s photo shoot, complete with camera flashes. It also feels like overkill to add “ethereal cabaret singer” to the requirements of the spectral role of Willy’s supposedly charmed brother, Ben, played to the theatrical hilt by a bejeweled André De Shields.
Femi Temowo’s blues underscoring is a welcome addition, landing on the ears as richly evocative of New York in the 1950s and supplying a plaintive embroidery to the overarching sadness of the proceedings. For the production is at its absolute best when it simply allows Miller’s characters to unfold the anxieties and grievances that multiply under the unbearable pressure to achieve financial security.
Davis and Belcher forge an explosive sibling symbiosis, nourished by the gene for self-aggrandizement that Biff and Happy have inherited from their father. It’s left to anguished Biff, unable to bear the weight of his father’s unrealistic expectations — or even of his own — to obliterate Willy. Davis performs the task with a withering fierceness. As Biff renders his shattering verdict, “I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!” the words echo with both Oedipal resentment and a swipe at the enshrinement of the almighty buck. No, not even a buck. They’re reduced in Biff’s indictment to a mere 10 cents.
The moving universality of Miller’s greatest drama will be perceived by any audience member who has ever worried about an overdrawn checking account, or fretted at the stress that work has on a loved one, or wondered whether, in any field of endeavor, they themselves really measure up. The mournful irony Miller built into “Death of a Salesman” is especially potent now, when our world so often feels as if it’s hanging by a thread. For not even that vital benchmark Americans strive for — making their final mortgage payment — is enough to sustain Willy. “Salesman” is an elegy to false hopes, a requiem for a breadwinner.
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Miranda Cromwell. Sets, Anna Fleischle; costumes, Fleischle and Sarita Fellows; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman; original music, Femi Temowo. With Lynn Hawley, Grace Porter, Chelsea Lee Williams. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Through Jan. 15 at Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York. 855-801-5876. salesmanonbroadway.com.