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New York City Theater

"The Price"
American Airlines Theater

In these dangerous times, how can we honestly evaluate a work filled with lies and greed without connecting it somehow to our present climate of, well, lies and greed? Playwrights who might have seemed dated now seem prescient; that, perhaps, is the enduring value as well as the distraction of even socially conscious playwrights.

Arthur Miller is the playwright in question. In the Roundabout Theater revival of his 1968 “The Price,” an accomplished director and four dynamic actors dig beyond a family’s bickering and recriminations. In the hands of director Terry Kinney and performers Mark Ruffalo, Danny DeVito, Jessica Hecht and Tony Shalhoub, this talky, weighty play succeeds more as a warning about being acquisitive, about a conflict between idealism and pragmatism, than a portrait of warring flesh-and-blood humans. Chalk it up to the times.

We’re in the attic of a New York brownstone on the brink of demolition. Filled to the rafters are the leavings of a house of wealth. Chairs hang from above, matched chests of drawers stand opposite each other like sentinels, an overstuffed armchair and a gleaming harp, with their own memories of moneyed leisure, take center stage. Regrettably, a non-existent back wall belies the feeling of being in a closed-off, abandoned space.

The furniture and house owners, Mr. and Mrs. Franz, are long gone; their children, brothers Victor (a cop) and Walter (a doctor) wish to sell the contents. Victor’s wife counsels him not to sell too cheaply but, when 89-year-old furniture dealer Gregory Solomon appears, Victor is all too eager to get rid of his past and its regrets.

While brother Walter was going to med school to become, eventually, a wealthy surgeon, Victor was left to care for his widowed father. Deprived of even a loan from Walter to finish school, Victor’s promising scientific career was decimated.

By the time Walter enters at the end of Act One, the stage is set for a fight. And a doozy it is, with accusations flying through the air like the dust that flits about the house’s belongings. “With used furniture you can’t be emotional,” warns Solomon, a piece of advice not taken by the brothers.

Miller questions the price paid for one’s life. Is Victor to be blamed for giving into his failure to reach his potential? Is Walter to blame for wanting to live well, for using his profession to acquire wealth? (His camel’s hair coat cost “two gallstones.”) Did the father they protected purposely keep Victor dependent?

How about Esther, Victor’s wife? Sensing her marriage in danger of splitting apart, she turns to drink and shopping.  And, of course, there’s Solomon, the wily dealer. Has he pulled a fast one on the family or is he sincere in his evaluation of their goods?

As Solomon, Danny DeVito, in his Broadway debut, has the juiciest role and he takes every bite he can. Huffing from climbing stairs (“It’s not water I need, it’s blood?) to his final enigmatic laugh, the actor is superb, playing his clients like chess pieces.  Ruffalo is marvelous, imbuing the play’s most developed character with ambiguity. Watch how his body and voice turn an initial shlub into a god of righteousness. Ruffalo, working from the inside out, pulses with suppressed anger and self-disappointment.

Hecht, stripped of mannerisms, is tense with frustration and repressed tenderness. It’s a moving performance. Shalhoub is a puzzle, though. The character is surely meant to be sympathetic. He has, after all, gone through personal hell: divorce, separation from his children, a nervous breakdown, a look at his true self. Shalhoub chooses to make Walter more unrepentant even, admittedly, unbelievable.

These are damaged characters, though the play itself is not. Miller, as he had in his career, puzzled about the price paid not only in families but, by extension, in the world. He was our playwright of conscience, needed now as ever.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 3, 2017

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