[Caption: Danny DeVito, Mark Ruffalo, and Tony Shalhoub, making an assessment of lives lived in The Price. Photo: Joan Marcus.]
[article as originally published in Exeunt Magazine, April 11, 2017.]
Arthur Miller wrote The Price in the late 1960s when he was in his early 50s and America was erupting in civil demonstration about wars and race relations. His domestic drama of legacies and antagonisms between brothers was hemmed in and energized by that cultural reality. The Roundabout revival directed by Terry Kinney, deflates the animating tensions. Kinney’s starry ensemble provides individual character studies but does not work together to create the combustible energy that this play is designed to contain. The set design, in which the walls of the attic setting have been blown out, and the choice to break the action with an intermission, further dissipate the inherent intensity of lurking sibling resentments and parental war crimes in Miller’s creation.
Set in 1968 in the attic of the family townhouse, now slated for demolition, beat cop Victor (stolid and disappointed as played by Mark Ruffalo), enters and rummages through family heirlooms. He meets his wife Esther (Jessica Hecht, quietly compassionate with her familiar vocal tones in check) and together they await a furniture dealer, anticipating what the price set on this old junk might bring to them and what that money might mean to them at this point in their lives.
The dealer Gregory Solomon (often mugging and quietly entertaining, Danny DeVito) arrives in a flurry of platitudes to assess the value of Victor’s dad’s things. Just under the surface is the consideration of Victor’s long absent, wealthy brother Walter and how to value his share. Though Walter himself was not expected to be present during this assessment, he unexpectedly arrives (concerned and convincing Tony Shalhoub) and the long-estranged siblings try to address the question of relative valuation and to unpack ancient scores. Prices are discussed as moral obligations, sacrifices, investments, and markets.
Everyone in the play has suffered losses: the brothers their parents, Solomon his daughter, and Esther a sense of the possibilities of life as she waited for Victor to retire from policing and return to the education he’d curtailed to care for his father. Victor feels his father loved his brother more despite Victor’s sacrifice of career and mobility. Walter, the older brother, moved out and became a successful professional, yet lost a connection to his sibling and resented his father’s miserly ways. These characters are haunted by familiar middle-aged regrets.
Ultimately, it is how Walter and Victor dealt with their father that has molded them. While Walter excised himself from his father’s self-pitying grasp, he provided him money over the years, unbeknownst to Victor. And in his ignorance, Victor shifted his life goals (leaving school, entering a career as a policeman) to accommodate his father. Both brothers had incomplete information about the parent that dominated rather than encouraged them, and incomplete information about each other. They lived their lives in spite of this looming character.
Another play from the same period explores the relationships among brothers who make choices about how to accommodate convention in their lives. In A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner’s 1962 play, iconoclast unemployed television writer Murray Burns is protected by and ultimately in conflict with his other brother Arnold, a conventional business guy. Gardner’s play ponders how to modulate one’s sense of fun and adventure and countercultural impulses and to accommodate adult relationships and obligations in mainstream society. This play culminates with each brother justifying their fights against or embrace of grown-up life – getting up, going to work, doing what has to be done.
In The Price, life possibilities are shared among several characters – the brothers and the furniture broker. The brothers question who paid more and who is owed more in life choices made in response to a strong-willed parent while the broker embraces life’s surprises. How do you value a life? When Walter says to Victor about Victor’s disappointments over his education foregone, “Your failure does not give you moral authority,” we ponder how to assess failure and the success in this family scenario. Neither Walter nor Victor (or Murray or Arnold) is morally pure, and there was no one choice that led to this assessment of the value of belongings and their lives. Victor and Walter’s ongoing struggle is juxtaposed against Solomon, who possesses that Murray Burns sense of wild possibility. Solomon’s life philosophy is summed up by the statement “you never know until the last minute.” A man in his 80s, Solomon finds a boost of energy with this one last estate score and shows that it is perspective—not age or wealth or opportunity—that defines how a life is lived.
Frequently, the set design for this play is a musty, rough-hewn, detritus-packed attic space. Derek McLane’s riff on the original, often replicated, confined attic design by Boris Aronson blows open the building walls. This beautiful set focuses attention on rooftops and sky and air rather than the tense struggle within a confined space. Rather than shadows in corners cast by boxes and old furniture, David Weiner’s lighting design keeps us hyperaware of the passage of time with sunsets and magnificent rooftop sky views that urban dwellers envy rather than feel estranged by. These design choices challenge the core energies of the play—suffocating memories and sibling agonies.
The Tony Awards committee recently announced their decision to consider only Mark Ruffalo (as Victor) as “leading” actor while the three other performers are being considered as “supporting,” despite the “above the title” all four receive. This decision underscores a challenge to this production. This play is not an “above the title” kind of enterprise but one that requires a taut ensemble to make it resonate. Instead of four voices in a chorus, this production, gives us four solo artists. And while some pleasures are provided in these performances, the harmonics are missing. All should be “supporting” and vital, and yet something is missing from this potent universal story that, confined within taut ensemble performances, by setting, by structure, can tell a potent universal story.