Tellingly set in a cluttered attic, Arthur Miller’s “The Price” is an intriguing curio shop of a play, in which not picture frames and porcelain figurines but resonant questions about ethics and ideals, truth and illusions, are trenchantly examined from various perspectives. If it is not among Miller’s greatest plays — it lacks the unity of purpose and dramatic thrust that mark this most forceful of American playwright’s masterpieces — it is nevertheless a seriously engaging symposium on the moral price paid for success and the emotional cost of failure (or is it the other way around?). Its arrival on Broadway this season is nicely timely: As the country approaches the new millennium in a veritable ecstasy of financial success, “The Price” explores in salutary fashion the definitions of the terms of American achievement, and their effects on the American family.
Whether the production itself will hit the jackpot is another question. This revival of Miller’s 1968 play originated at the Williamstown Theater Festival, which also spawned the current Broadway revival of “The Rainmaker” from the Roundabout Theater Co. (That company, incidentally, mounted a Broadway revival of “The Price” in 1992.) While one suspects that both productions were more imposing in the less rigorous atmosphere of the summer festival, James Naughton’s staging of “The Price” is forthright and sensitive, and boasts a solid cast. But without the starry allure and iconic title of last season’s “Death of a Salesman,” the show will need ecstatic reviews to attract audiences in a competitive fall season.
“The Price” is marked by some stylistic surprises unknown in Miller’s more familiar plays. Its setting, an attic filled to the rafters with a household’s worth of furniture, is vaguely absurd, particularly in designer Michael Brown’s arresting interpretation, in which armoires and armchairs climb chaotically up the walls. And it boasts a patently comical character, the aged Jewish antique dealer Gregory Solomon (Bob Dishy), who seems almost to have wandered in from a Yiddish theater comedy.
Solomon arrives in the upper reaches of a Manhattan brownstone to make a bid on the furniture of the long-deceased father of Victor Franz (Jeffrey DeMunn). Victor needs the money: A career cop who’s contemplating retirement, he’s trying to decide what he can afford to do with the rest of his life, spurred on by a sympathetic but careworn wife (Lizbeth Mackay) who has had enough of sacrifice. (“I want money!” she cries, almost hysterically, in Mackay’s sharp-edged turn.)
As played by Dishy with generous doses of ethnic inflections, Solomon is a sly charmer who relies on the pathos of his advanced age — and references to the suicide of his daughter — to convince Victor to take the price he offers. The dynamics of this scene, in which a tough-talking Victor is gradually seduced into sympathy with Gregory’s assessment of the furniture’s worth, prove to be a reflection of the relationship that shaped Victor’s disappointed life.
As we learn when Victor’s estranged brother Walter (Harris Yulin) suddenly arrives and the siblings begin to spar, Victor dropped out of college when the family business went bankrupt in the crash of ’29. Their father had retreated into a somnolent and useless despair, and Victor supported him on his cop’s salary while Walter went to medical school and forged a lucrative career. The resentment this engendered has led to a 16-year silence between the brothers.
In the play’s most powerful scene, the ghost of their father hovers near — almost personified by Solomon, who retreats ill to a bedroom — as the brothers come nearly to blows over their conflicting versions of painful past history. Was Victor’s sacrifice worth the price he paid for it? Was it even necessary? Was Walter’s refusal of a loan that would allow Victor to continue his studies meant as a wakeup call to their father’s manipulations, or was it born of envy of Victor’s greater abilities?
In his greatest plays, Miller has a moralizing streak that is intriguingly in abeyance in “The Price.” The geography of right and wrong is constantly shifting beneath the characters’ feet here, as this compassionate playwright questions the uses and abuses of that emotional commodity. This gives the play a nuanced dimension that is sometimes lacking in Miller’s oeuvre. At the same time, a healthy righteousness is often what gives Miller’s plays their dramatic force, and one sometimes marks the lack of it in this more diffuse and reflective work.
Yulin brings impressive reserves of quiet dignity to his portrayal of Walter, who has come to realize that his thirst for success was animated by the same fear of failure that may have fueled Victor’s decision to opt out of the rat race. Yulin’s calm dissection of Victor’s illusions is enacted with a marked tenderness, a pity that Walter must cloak in dry-eyed dispassion — for Victor is quick to feel it as contempt.
DeMunn’s Victor, the production’s standout turn, seethes and struggles under the bruising touch of his brother’s words. The performance grows almost imperceptibly in stature and power, until by the play’s end the air is electric with Victor’s anguished writhing under his disintegrating illusions. It’s a harrowing but always scrupulously natural performance.
The brothers’ bargaining with the past, and each other, ultimately ends in a disordered jumble of recrimination and regret. “Your failure does not give you moral authority!” Walter snaps at Victor in the play’s final moments, but nor does his own success. The play’s bleak conclusion suggests that they’re both doomed to continue searching for answers that cannot be purchased at any price.
When the curtain falls, only the most meaningless of the play’s many transactions — the sale of the furniture — has been completed.