To watch an actor who has appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company of London practice his craft in a community theatre setting is quite an experience. This was my treat yesterday up in Santa Rosa (pop 157.000) at the admirably striving Sixth Street Playhouse, where Death of a Salesmanan was presented.
I had never heard the name Daniel Benzali, who in the U.S. is known largely for his work in TV, his most touted role being that of Ted Hoffman in ABC’s Murder One. On the West End, he starred as Juan Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, and he also appeared as Max von Mayerling in the world premiere of Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in London.
And now he was in Santa Rosa playing Willy Loman in perhaps only the second production I have ever seen of this play. And proving to me that he possibly delivered as strong and persuasive a performance in the role as has ever been seen in a place where, ironically, he has never been — Broadway.
Sad and strange, from an internet search, Benzali appears never to have reached the elusive Great White Way. Surely this must haunt him as he essays the role of a road salesman whose career is on the skids and whose opportunities to ply his craft are fast vanishing. To the stage Benzali brought, perhaps, the simple power of real-life identification.
We were promised a “once in a lifetime chance to see one of America’s finest actors in America’s greatest dramatic play.” Going in, I wondered if it was hype. Coming out, I believed.
Now as for that second claim about the play itself, I'm not so sure. I recall being mesmerized by the televised version of Death staring Lee J. Cobb in 1966, in a truncated version (down to 100 minutes), to which the scissors had been judiciously put. In Santa Rosa yesterday, minus the scissors, the production’s first gripping act, nearly perfectly mounted, gave this company the look of the regional theatre it hopes to become. Unfortunately, Benzali was ill served by a choppy shouting match approach to the direction that occurred after intermission between the characters, who resembled a family in psychotherapy. Local director Sheri Lee Miller pushed the tension and frequent outbursts up too soon and too high, rendering the dynamics static and redundant. Nor did we get anywhere near a nuanced performance from actor Tim Kniffin overplaying the critical character of Biff. (How it made me long to be watching a musical instead.)
Or was part of the problem Miller’s own second act excesses? His inability to draw back and let a little of the obvious meanings hover in the air? Shortly after Miller died, the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, striking a singularly courageous view in an article titled "The Great Pretender," boldly dismissed the majority of Miller’s prolific output as being overly preachy and polemic. Having seen only one or two other Miller plays which left me numbly unengaged (including a leaden Crucible), perhaps I am rushing to premature agreement with the Journal in stating that I hold in higher regard the work of both Tennessee Williams and Lilian Hellman
But what a sublime pleasure it was to watch Benzali fall apart before our eyes spinning his impeccable craft for the tragic Willy in this respectable if ill-shaped production. His performance was underwritten. Still, I had to wonder what he was doing, a la Willy Loman, so far off the main road.