Review: "Death of a Salesman: A New Play" May Forever Change the Way You Look at Tennis Balls (and the Word "Tennis")

Death of a Salesman: A New Play

Written by Austen Halpern-Graser

Directed by Caroline Burkhart

Presented by FRIGID New York at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

February 17-March 4, 2023

Ethan Graham-Horowitz and Austen Halpern-Graser. Photo courtesy of Emily Owens PR
If the version of the American Dream in 1949, when Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman made its debut, was the familiar one of a suburban house and family, then today, that dream, or at least one permutation of it, has metamorphosed into getting in on the ground floor of the next billion-dollar start-up. In this imagining of the American Dream, Mark Zukerberg has replaced the comfortably middle-class patriarch as its aspirational figure, and playwright Austen Halpern-Graser's Death of a Salesman: A New Play, currently part of the 17th annual FRIGID Fringe festival, uses one pair of such dreamers to hilariously skewer bro-laden entrepreneurial culture.

Ethan Graham-Horowitz & Austen Halpern-Graser. Photo courtesy of Emily Owens PR
Jason (a perfectly costumed Ethan Graham-Horowitz) and Jacob (Austen Halpern-Graser) are, to use their terminology, hustling, looking to make it big with eco-friendly tennis balls. Given that theirs is a two-man company that relied on Kickstarter money to produce its prototypes, we (and Jacob) might reasonably assume that the men are cofounders, but Jason clearly occupies the role of boss to Jacob's underling, who is also the one making the sales calls and presentations. Complicating the path to the stratospheric valuation that they are chasing, the pair are low on funds, to the point that they are living in some unsavory conditions, and there is little sign of an impending turnaround. Tensions, as they are wont, rise; and that is even before a third onstage character adds a whole new dimension to the ecological tennis ball saga.

Death of a Salesman: A New Play is packed with great comedy, from Jason and Jacob's getting-hyped-up-to-work ritual and Jason putting on a DIY version of one of his favorite films, The Social Network, to a hysterically funny pitch presentation by Jacob with Jason miming in the background that has a very Kids-in-the-Hall energy. The show also exhibits a strong and welcome streak of the absurd, especially as it spins through to its increasingly unconventional climax. Nestled among the myriad laughs are also some moments that point to what drives both people like Jason and late-stage capitalism: more important, the play suggests, than even feelings of inferiority brought on by his successful brother are fears of insignificance and death. Such hints reveal the absurd confidence that the characters have in themselves and in capitalism–as well as the (masculine) self-aggrandizing culture that surrounds their brand of entrepreneurship–which the play so ably satirizes, to be a kind of smokescreen. With Death of a Salesman: A New Play, Jason and Jacob's failure is Graham-Horowitz and Halpern-Graser's comic triumph.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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