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A CurtainUp Review
Second Thoughts: The Price
By Les Gutman
Ed. Note: Having reviewed this production this past summer at Williamstown, I asked Les Gutman to join me for an evaluation of its Broadway transfer. The original cast and creative team are intact and, I'm happy to report, so is the show. Therefore, I refer you to my review, linked here, which will be helpful read before the "second thoughts" which follow. --E.S
In these waning days of the 20th Century it occurs to me that of the triumvirate of men regarded as its greatest American playwrights, Arthur Miller has written plays that are the most uniquely of this century. It is thus perhaps fitting that James Naughton, who directs this work with journeyman devotion, is as faithful as he is to the style and sensibilities of Miller's period. Whether you wish to judge The Price as the bottom of Miller's top tier of plays, or at the top of his second rung, it is the one that will be most affected by the disappearance of an audience that lived through the Great Depression. Like the better-known families in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, and Miller himself, the Franz's were marked by that Depression. The youngest of the audience bearing that indelible imprint turns 70 this year.
Can The Price resonate beyond its moorings? With its focus on familial relationships and Miller's pounding moral landscape, it would seem so. But it will have to await a 21st Century production. Miller's last Broadway opening of the 20th century does not look through the millennial peephole.
It also doesn't pay very close attention to its characters. Naughton has assembled a cast of fine actors whose performances are a joy to watch. While The Price may not be poetic, the second act reads like a string quartet. But here, only two of the players engage the work in the proper key. The other two deprive it of the emotional intensity to which it must build.
Victor (Jeffrey DeMunn), the brother who forsakes a career as a scientist and becomes a policeman, is not a trusting soul. It is not all that surprising, therefore, that Gregory Solomon (Bob Dishy), the furniture dealer/appraiser who claims to be 89 years old and who is now prepared to buy (some would say steal) the long-ignored furnishings of the Franz house, feels the need to produce British Navy papers confirming his age to him. Someone should have thought to ask DeMunn, a superlative actor, for his papers. Victor is supposed to be having a mid-life crisis -- he is 49. DeMunn, in every respect, appears to be pushing 60. It makes much of what we are supposed to believe preposterous.
Solomon should be wise and also funny. In the exceptional Dishy's hands, he's funny and also wise. It's not a distinction without a difference. Instead of seeding the play with Miller's ethic, he fertilizes it with Yiddish theater clowning. Entertaining, but not as effective.
The other two portrayals fare better. As Victor's surgeon-brother, Walter, Harris Yulin is close to perfection. He arrives just in time not only for the curtain of Act One - really just an hour-plus prologue to the "real play" in Act Two -- but also to give the production its only satisfactory dimension. Lizbeth Mackay's Esther, Victor's perplexed wife, is also on target, if a bit shrill. (A shrillness, I might add, that the theater's over-energetic sound system hasn't fully found a way to accommodate.)
At their best, Miller's plays compellingly force their way into our guts. The Price, of course, is not Miller at his best. And this production, which to its credit does not lose us or obscure Miller's message, does little to shoehorn it into the time capsule for posterity. <