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|A CurtainUp Review
Editor's Note: This production moved to Broadway in November 1999. For Les Gutman's Second Throughts review go here
Despite my wishes I could not tamper with something the play and life seemed to be telling me: That we were doomed to perpetuate our illusions because truth was too costly to face
-- Arthur Miller on The Price
Victor (Jeffrey De Munn) and Walter Franz (Harris Yulin) have been living in different worlds for many years, one a police sergeant, the other a wealthy surgeon. Since the house in which the seeds of their estrangement were planted is being torn down Victor tried to contact Walter about disposing of the contents of the attic apartment in which they lived after their father lost his fortune (and sense of identity) during the 30s Depression. Getting no response from Walter, Victor has taken matters into his own hands. But just as he's agreed to the price offered by a wily old appraiser (Bob Dishy), Walter shows up and the brothers are face to face for the first time since their father's death sixteen years ago.
The title too has a dual meaning -- on the surface the price is the figure haggled over and agreed upon for the apartment's contents. The price is also a fact of life according to Arthur Miller. Whatever you do, whatever trade-offs you make, there is always a "price." Victor sacrificed a promising career in science to support his father. Walter, seeing the father as more selfish than needy, went his own way and later, wanting his brother to see through the illusion of the father's neediness, refused Victor's plea for a modest loan -- causing the final rift in an already fragile relationship.
The brothers' divergent views about roads taken and not taken again parallels the different views of the value of the furnishings about to be sold. Victor just wants to be rid of these reminders of too many years of putting aside his own ambitions to support the broken man his father has become. His wife Esther (Lizbeth Mackay) sees that furniture as a window of opportunity to turn years of doing without into a last chance to have a more meaningful life -- translation: more financial comforts, more prestige than being the wife of a cop. Walter views the neglected old homestead and everything in it as a symbol of the family's neglect of nurturing loving relationships instead of a love of money and success.
And of course there's the crusty old dealer, Gregory Solomon (Bob Dishy) for whom this estate represents a final chance to be a contender. Until Victor picked his name out of an outdated telephone directory his business has been past history -- he is after all almost ninety. Unlike Victor who's only forty-nine but resigned to life in the slow and unadventurous lane, Solomon, a one-time acrobat, is still willing to take risks. Unlike Walter, personal tragedies have not made him crack up. He is Miller's version of a comic Dionysus -- a former acrobat, a man willing who risked marriage at seventy.
How does the play hold up? Like other recent revivals of works by the master of the well made play, very well indeed. The ethical dilemmas are equal to his earlier plays in intensity. The furniture sale works organically to stir memories to set up the big Act 2 confrontation. Solomon's wise and witty observations on life and the furniture trade ease us into the shift to the gut-wrenching second act with its uncompromising ending. The one-liners, like the overall emotional resonance retain their spark -- for example:
On his qualifications as an appraiser -- The only thing you can do today without a license is you'll go up the elevator and jump out the window
On the implications of a sturdy table in a world where people like things disposable so that they can indulge their passion for shopping -- A man sits down at such a table, he not only knows he is married; he is staying married. People won't go shopping with this kind of furniture.
Happily, director James Naughton has given The Price a rock-solid production. No attempts to give the old Miller a trendy new look or to intersperse "now" touches (i.e. the unnecessary gospel interludes in the otherwise excellent WTF revival of Raisin In the Sun).
The actors are seasoned performers but none are particularly noteworthy for their box office power. As Victor, the most conflicted of the characters, Jeffrey DeMunn quietly and compellingly keeps Bob Dishy's Solomon from upstaging him with his funny lines. From the time he climbs up the stairs in the middle of the apartment and wordlessly wanders around, picking up an object here, winding up an old victrola, twirling a fencing sword from his brief college career to the brutal final scene with Walter he gives a fully rounded, sympathetic reading of the defeated middle-aged cop.
Harris Yulin is -- well, Harris Yulin -- but by the time he stalks off, disgustedly throwing down the gown once worn by his mother, he too has grown in stature. Lizbeth Mackay is Esther. She hates her life to the point of drinking too much, she wants Victor to be more aggressive, and yet she loves him. As for Bob Dishy, he enters the stage with a bang but he overdoes the shtickiness so that you're glad to have him relegated to the off-stage bedroom for most of the second act.
Like Michael Brown's already mentioned set, Laurie Churba's costumes beautifully support the play. Clothing, like humor, isn't ordinarily a big thing in a Miller play, but here meaningful references are everywhere. Solomon's black Persian collared coat gives viability to his claim to earlier, grander days. Victor's expensive leather gloves and beige camel's hair coat epitomizes the "money machine" he allowed himself to become (he even remarks that the coat was worth "two gall stone operations"). Esther's prim little suit, well fitted but inexpensive, perfectly conveys her as a woman with an eye for nice things.
In the final analysis, The Price is a somber and depressing slice of life. It is nevertheless an upbeat experience in that it offers us a well-staged new look at a fine example of a realistic drama with a universal hit-home appeal.