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Weekend Review

Klugman's Prowess, Not Patter, Makes 'Salesman' Work

Theater review: Despite his vocal limitations, the 76-year-old actor creates an able Willy Loman amid a strong cast at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

September 21, 1998|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Klugman has the easily expressive face of a sad clown. If he had been born in another age, he could have been a sensation in silent movies. He doesn't need words to signal his emotions.

When he enters the Falcon Theatre stage as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," he instantly establishes Willy's fatigue and depression without uttering a sound.

Then he speaks, and suddenly we think about Klugman, not Loman.

Probably most people in the audience are aware that Klugman fought throat cancer in the '80s, losing a vocal cord and most of his voice in the process. Fortunately, with training, he restored his voice to the point that he was able to return to his career; he recently appeared on Broadway in "The Sunshine Boys."

For some of those who go to the Falcon, seeing Klugman rebound from his vocal ordeal and tackle one of the greatest roles in the theater will be inspiration enough to justify the experience. In fact, much of the audience on Saturday applauded the beloved Klugman at his first entrance--a gesture of salute seldom seen in L.A's 99-seat theaters.

Yet for those who are more interested in Arthur Miller's great play than in paying tribute to a star, Klugman's voice is a distraction.

Usually a deep, raspy croak, it sometimes rises to a high, whispery hoot. Most of the words are intelligible, but they sound strained--and sometimes require so much extra deciphering by the audience that they divert attention away from Willy--the man to whom "attention must be paid." Occasionally whole phrases are lost.

Klugman's voice also doesn't make much sense within the context of the play. Willy's sales career has been built on a gift for gab. Although he's now foundering, no one mentions any physical problems with his voice. Indeed, considering how important a salesman's patter is, and how heartless Willy's boss is, a salesman who sounded like Klugman would have been retired from the field long ago.

Willy's son Biff refers to how Willy has "always mumbled," but Klugman's vocal problems aren't related to mumbling. Willy himself believes that he "talks too much"--but he's referring to the content, or lack of content, behind his words, not to any vocal strain.

The other aspects of his performance are in excellent working order. Willy's aggressive bonhomie and flashing temper roll off Klugman with ease, as do his many crestfallen moments.

Although Klugman is 76, he moves like a man at least 15 years younger, especially in his fantasy and flashback scenes, where he tosses a football around with his sons. This is appropriate, for Willy is identified in the written script as 63 (here he's identified as 65).

Director Andrew J. Robinson, best known for his Matrix Theatre stagings, has assembled an impressive cast around Klugman.

Raphael Sbarge has the requisite handsome features of Biff, Willy's fallen son and chief antagonist. He moves fluidly between the flashbacks, when he casts an idolizing glow upon his father, and the frustrations of the present. When he hears himself described as a poet and idealist by his brother, he takes a quick, literal jab at the pretense. His performance finally rises to a passionate pitch that makes the play Biff's almost as much as Willy's.

Nancy Linehan Charles--best known for the indomitable women she has portrayed in such Pacific Resident Theatre productions as "The Visit" and "Mrs. Warren's Profession"--might seem miscast as the supportive wife who lets Willy bark at her uninterrupted, but the steel she projects brings new respect to Linda Loman, who, after all, has held the household together despite Willy's self-delusion.

As Happy, the younger son who shows signs of following in his father's most misguided footsteps, James Calvert rides smoothly along "on a smile and a shoeshine," adjusting his hat to perfection, making the moves on the dolled-up Miss Forsythe (Jacquey Rosati).

Steven Gilborn's Charlie and Gibson Frazier's Bernard avoid the caricature that can creep into portrayals of the brainier neighbors. Zane Lasky is amusingly self-absorbed but not vicious as Willy's second-generation boss. James Karen's legendary Ben, accompanied by jungle imagery on the backdrop during his first appearance (he often speaks about going into the jungle), is an imposing challenge to Willy's complacency--as is, in her own way, Peggy Joyce Crosby's woman in a hotel room. You can almost smell the garlic when the New York waiter played by the scrupulously authentic Val Bisoglio enters the room.

Jay Moore's set, John Clemens' lighting and Donna L. May's costumes closely follow the original models. Much of the incidental music is by the original production's composer, Alex North.

*

* "Death of a Salesman," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 25. $25. (818) 955-8101. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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