By an odd coincidence, the two plays that have received the most accomplished productions during this summer’s 45th Williamstown Theater Festival are from Broadway’s 1967-68 season. The first was Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”; the second, Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” which is bringing the season to a solid and heartfelt — if somber — close.
Although “Price” has never become a part of America’s psyche as “Death of a Salesman” has, it’s still a play of stature that offers considerable audience satisfaction. The WTF audience greeted it with open arms to the point of interrupting it with applause after a baroque soliloquy on the dubious virtues of unbreakable furniture by Bob Dishy, who plays Miller’s 89-year-old Jewish antique dealer Gregory Solomon.
The play’s oddities and weaknesses remain evident: The role of Solomon sometimes seems too much like comic relief and unbalances the play, which is primarily about two disaffected brothers, Victor and Walter Franz; the role of Victor’s wife seems underwritten; and basically the script is all talk and no action.
But what rich, rewarding talk it is as it explores, among other questions, the price paid for compassion and loyalty in a world where money reigns. And what a feast of fiercely concentrated performances are lavished upon it in James Naughton’s production, which is far superior to standard summer stock.
The repercussions of the Great Depression reverberate through Miller’s play as the Franz brothers meet again after 16 years, the occasion being the sale of their late father’s furniture. Solomon has been invited by Victor (Jeffrey DeMunn), a New York policeman, to give a price on the whole shebang. The 1929 crash ruined the brothers’ father, who was unable to bounce back. Victor chose to give up his scientific studies and take a job as a cop in order to look after him. Walter (Harris Yulin) became a successful, well-heeled surgeon, refusing years before to give his brother $ 500 to complete his studies.
Why the two brothers did what they did is slowly revealed in complicated layers of truths and self-deceptions as Walter attempts to heal the breach between them. “The Price” is essentially a sad play that, in a theatrical masterstroke, begins and ends with laughter — from a record played on an aged phonograph. Between these bursts of laughter are untold depths of angst and resentment.
DeMunn and Yulin are as well-matched as they must be to maintain the moral balance between the two characters that Miller intends. Their confrontations, if sometimes physically stilted, have real theatrical impact.
In the sure-fire role of Solomon, Dishy is wonderfully colorful without ever lapsing into Russian-Jewish caricature. As Victor’s long-suffering wife, Lizbeth Mackay is sometimes paler than she might be (she lacks the individuality Kate Reid brought to Esther on Broadway), but she’s still more than acceptable.
Because this is an actors’ rather than a director’s play, Naughton is to be thanked for encouraging his cast to blossom. Only at the end do he and Dishy fail to live up to Miller’s intentions. Alone onstage, Solomon plays the laughing record again and, according to Miller, “sprawls back in the chair, laughing with tears in his eyes, howling helplessly to the air,” presumably in a final comment that helpless laughter is about the only way to cope with life’s injustices.
Dishy goes nowhere near as far as this, settling for a chuckle or two; the point is made, though with less raw irony than might be the case. Naughton also chose to take Miller’s option of mounting the play in two acts rather than perform its continuous real-time action without a break, as is Miller’s preference and as was done on Broadway.
Mention must be made of Michael Brown’s impressive set (to the cast’s credit, they don’t allow it to upstage them). It’s an overwhelming, surreal tower of old furniture piled sky-high atop a slatted floor, lit from below. Above an ornamental, skeletal ceiling a ghostly gray New York skyline looms.