Sunday, May 21, 2017

Theater Review: Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price,’ From the Roundabout Theatre Co.

Even though it closed a week ago at the American Airlines Theatre, I couldn’t let this season pass without taking note of the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the 1968 drama The Price. It can hardly be said that Arthur Miller has lacked defenders in the way that, for instance, his contemporary William Inge has. 

But this particular piece—less rhetorical or melodramatic than the likes of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge, or All My Sons—is less showy and undeservedly overlooked.

And so it might have been here, too, except that it gave a ripe, albeit supporting, role to Danny DeVito. Here, the 72-year-old actor got to play a character nearly two decades his senior—the shrewd Russian-Jewish furniture dealer Gregory Solomon, called on to assess the value of materials left in a Manhattan brownstone by the father of two long-estranged brothers, policeman Victor Franz and the considerably wealthier surgeon Walter Franz.

Using the great timing he wielded for years on the TV series Taxi and films like Twins and Throw Mama From the Train, DeVito took with relish to perhaps the only consistently comic character created by Miller in his six-decade career as a playwright. It was a joy to hear him chew over lines like “Anything Spanish-Jacobean, you’ll sell quicker a case of tuberculosis.” For his first appearance on the Great White Way, the veteran character actor was rewarded with Tony and Drama Desk nominations this year for Best Featured Actor.

But, no matter how much he juiced up the proceedings, DeVito was hardly the only reason to watch The Price. In its way, the drama vents, with little of the artifice that marks some of his earlier plays, themes that long consumed Miller: the devastating long-term damage to American psyches left by the Great Depression; the widening ripple effects of family conflict; and the impact of false values on those who hold them. In the hands of Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht, these concepts were embodied with deep fidelity to dramatic realism.

The play’s title, we realize, with increasing certainty in Act II, refers to not just the total that Solomon might pay for the furniture after intensive bargaining, but also to the cost of the life choices made by the Franz brothers when the Depression undercuts the family’s affluence. Both possessed a talent for science, but Victor (played by Ruffalo) decided to support a father too devastated to work anymore, while Walter (Shalhoub) went to college and became a successful surgeon. The brothers circle each other, in a wary attempt at reconciliation after 16 years, as it becomes increasingly apparent that they will have to work through a lifetime of secrets, lies and illusions. 

(As Victor’s wife Esther, Hecht may have the trickiest role of all: while her character’s desire for a better life is pushing her husband in a certain direction, she also serves as the play’s most decisively moved character and, therefore, as a stand-in for the audience.)

Shalhoub had an easier time with the dialogue than Ruffalo, as Walter is, by virtue of his wealth and years spent in psychoanalysis, more sophisticated and open about his feelings than Victor. But Miller was careful, unlike much of his other, more didactic work, not to give either brother a real upper hand, and I’m sure that many audience members left the theater far more aware of their own family quarrels that are equally uneasy to unknot.

The Price deserves a higher place in the Miller canon. After this revival—exquisitely well-crafted by director Terry Kinney—it is likely to receive it.

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