As the show unfolds, Shaw plays on our emotions perilously. Telling lovelorn tales, her flesh sagging, she becomes tender, fragile, and naked; but again and again she undercuts these emotions with tossed-off jokes. When the audience laughs, she hisses: "It's not funny!" submerging us again in the strange nether world of our own mortality. Funny, not funny -- well, maybe a little bit.
The dark and sleepy realism of Death of a Salesman has an antique feel, like the faithful rattle of an old Cadillac. The Actors Theater is reviving the play now for a monthlong extension of its late-December run, and the set, with its sooty brick and dingy wallpaper and old gas stove, is perfect. So is Robert Elross. He plays Willy Loman as a petty, sweet, arrogant, tired, tyrannical, earnest, and vulnerable man. Some people think of Loman as a midcentury poster boy for everything that was wrong with America before the 1960s, but Elross presents a shaded hero, someone likable and even familiar, with ideals and personality but no inner life, and consequently no way of seeing his ideals through. This is perfect, because everything Loman lacked is still sickeningly lacking in the average American life right now; the malady Arthur Miller set down in 1949 has simply changed its clothes.
Loman is the ultimate Social Guy: "Be liked," he tells his sons, "and you will never want." At the time of the play his two grown sons are home. Happy is a successful businessman; Biff is a drifting 34-year-old, and Willy seems troubled by Biff's outward failure. He mutters to himself in the kitchen, with his memories replaying in ghostly flashback scenes that must have seemed like clever expressionism in 1949 but clank a little now, quaintly. The flashbacks show the arc of Willy's failure; they also show how Biff has grown from a high school athlete with great expectations into a feckless, overgrown boy. Biff respected his father in high school, but when he learned that old Dad wasn't so admirable after all he began to feel unmoored: Willy's outward life, like everyone's, is a sham.
The other actors in this production orbit Elross like wavering moons. In general, the closer they are to the middle, the better. Niki Hersh -- who was brilliant as the main character in the Jewel Theater's Road to Mecca last summer -- plays a solid Linda Loman (Willy's wife), though she's powerful only when she has to grope for a line, not in fluent speeches. Finn Curtin works up to a strong performance as Biff, starting out starchily but growing into something harsh and torn. Joe Gilmartin is also solid, and Bruce Mackey plays the Lomans' neighbor Charlie with a beautifully felt, ironic gravity. So the core of the show is tight and does credit to the play. Some of the outer characters are played by actors not unlike Willy Loman, performers unaware of themselves.