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'Death of a Salesman' still packs a punch

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Arthur

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s " Death of a Salesman" directed by Mike Nichols in 2012.

Let's get this out of the way at the top. Philip Seymour Hoffman is too young and soft to be the standard-issue iconic Willy Loman chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of American drama. Andrew Garfield seems too delicate and sensitive to be the Biff we know as the curdled former high-school quarterback and big Willy's golden-boy son.

And none of that matters a bit in Mike Nichols' revival of "Death of a Salesman," a wrenching, powerfully inhabited production that honors Arthur Miller's 1949 masterwork -- complete with original sets and music -- while finding new shades of humanity all its own.

For all his heft, Hoffman's indelible Willy has a lightness that was unimaginable in Dustin Hoffman's small, studied portrayal on Broadway in 1984 or Brian Dennehy's man-mountain disintegration in 1999.

This Willy still drags his weary self and his sample cases back to the Brooklyn family home with all the weight of a broken American dream, so defeated he hardly musters the effort to move his jaw when he talks. But as Willy travels back and forth in time through the vast labyrinth of his crumbling mind, we see how a droll sense of humor, more than just phony hard sell, clinched the sales in the good years on the road.

Miller's tragedy still challenges our values with rare compassion, indicting a nation of empty materialism and the loss of respect for simple work. But Willy is not just some good guy the system squashed. He's also a hypocrite, a cheat, a climber as desperate to be "well liked" as appreciated.

Nichols shapes the deep love -- more, the real passion -- between Willy and his loyal wife, Linda, played with a majestic lack of pretense by the remarkable Linda Emond. Garfield, the British stage actor on the brink of mass fandom in the upcoming "Spider-Man" movie, lasers impressively into Biff's helplessness instead of the character's more familiar dead-soul danger. Finn Wittrock, who physically fits better in this family, has layers of bluff swagger as Happy, the skirt-chasing disillusioned younger brother.

As Jo Mielziner's 1949 designs envisioned the Loman house, this is a telling little world, cramped, with walls too flimsy for privacy, which opens back to better days with little more than projections of amber leaves. And the play, 63 years after it changed Miller's life and the theater, still holds the stage with the certainty of tires on tough cement.

WHAT "Death of a Salesman"

WHERE Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

INFO $46.50-$141.50; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Wrenching, powerful classic

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