I remember the first time I heard about "Death of a Salesman". I was going through my big Marilyn Monroe phase and I had been reading about her marriage to Arthur Miller, and the play that had won him the Pulitzer. But it wasn't until years later that I went along to a performance of the play with my friend, Groovy Gem. I recall that the intensity of the performances mesmerised me. As the lights went down on Act 2 I blinked, and tears just poured out. Groovy Gems and I workshopped it a bit afterwards and we were equally depressed, angry, but most of all I think we were just very sad for all the characters.
So you've got to wonder why I might put myself through that emotional drainage again tonight. Well we're a few years on now and I'm a little older and a little wiser, and frankly I thought it was about time I gave the play another shot. Oh please, who am I kidding?! This time around, I'm in New York and the play is in previews on Broadway. Not only that, but it stars Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and the spunky new Spiderman himself, Andrew Garfield. My seat was in the fourth row of the theatre, so I was front and centre for all the action. As with my first exposure, this production of "Death of a Salesman" had me riveted from start to finish. Hoffman played Willy Loman with all the desperation, delusion and despair that I remembered. But I think it was Andrew Garfield who surprised me the most. His portrayal of Biff was so strong and raw that I couldn't look away. When father and son have their breakthrough in Act 2, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to get on the stage and hug it out. No tears this time, but when I joined the audience in the standing ovation at the end, I realised I was clammy and worn out. The play had sat so heavily on me tonight that I couldn't decide if I needed a shower or a stiff drink, or both.
I ended up having neither, but I thought about the play the whole walk to the subway. I found myself getting really mad at the characters who had lied to themselves, and each other, throughout the whole story. I was frustrated at them, sad for them, and irritated that even after all this time, Miller's story can still resonate with me. So I was distracted when it came to putting my Metro card in the machine, and when it repeatedly jammed, a tourist offered to scan it for me. Mortifying.
It wasn't until I got on the bus that my mood lightened. But it didn't have anything to do with heading for home; rather it had more to do with the elderly gentleman who moved over on the seat to make room for me. Thanking him quickly for his kindness, he cautioned me that he's not always so kind, and he gave me a mischievous wink. Tapping his hands on the seat in front of us, Old Man leaned over and complimented me on my glasses. He admitted he had fallen in love with me a bit. Oh dear, thinks me. Then the man started making little snare drum sounds, winked at me again and said, "I'm syncopating with you, my lady". Um, okay - so there's a first time for everything. But I've got to hand it to a man who can syncopate. I was slowly emerging from my Miller-induced funk and actually giving this guy my attention when he randomly asked me if I had heard of Marvin Gaye. He seemed pleased when I replied in the affirmative. So he told me that he played percussion on one of Mr. Gaye's biggest hits, and could I guess which one? I took a punt and offered up, "What's Going On"? His face lit up in the biggest smile and he clapped his hands with glee. "Oh baby, you are one smart and beautiful lady" he said. As we travelled the few blocks together, he introduced himself as Jack Ashford, member of the Funk Brothers studio band. Mr. Ashford told me about recording sessions with the greats, including Marvin Gaye and jazz legend Miles Davis. After a career spent travelling across the US and around the world in limousines, Ashford moved to New York and raised "ungrateful children who make me ride the bus". Arthur Miller is never far away from any of us. But sure enough I Googled Mr Ashford when I got home and verified that I was indeed sitting right next to a tambourine maestro tonight. And he syncopated with me. Mercy mercy me!