Danny DeVito, making his Broadway debut, gets the best deal out of The Price. Arthur Miller is not a playwright known for comically colorful characters, yet here’s DeVito as Gregory Solomon, a Jewish acrobat turned 89-year-old used furniture dealer who “smoked all my life, I drinked, and I loved every woman who would let me.”
DeVito’s character is the most enjoyable but not a central one in Miller’s sober family drama, now getting its fifth production on Broadway, in a cast that also includes Mark Ruffalo, Jessica Hecht and Tony Shalhoub. If none are at their absolute best here, that only means that all of them at one time or another have given performances that have left me in awe. In the play — which is also not Miller’s absolute best — Shalhoub and Ruffalo are estranged brothers who meet in their childhood home years after their parents’ death in order to sell off their old possessions before the building is torn down. The meeting turns into a confrontation, with secrets revealed, the past unearthed. The price is not just what Solomon will give them for the furniture but what the characters have paid for past choices and lost chances.
Ruffalo portrays Victor Franz, a 49-year-old New York City police officer who enters the cluttered apartment as the play begins and picks up a fencer’s foil, practicing his jousts. It’s the first clue director Terry Kinney gives us of what once was, and could have been. We learn that the Franz family was wealthy until the Great Depression bankrupted them. Victor, a good all-around student and promising would-be scientist, dropped out of college, joined the police force, and took care of his father. His sacrifice has never sat well with his wife, Esther (Hecht), who joins him in the apartment, and wants him to retire and move up in the world. She believes Victor’s older brother Walter owes Victor a “moral debt.”
His older brother Walter kept his distance and continued in medical school, becoming an affluent surgeon. The two haven’t spoken in 16 years. But, as it turns out, he too made choices he now regrets.
Miller wrote The Price in 1968, shortly after the two-decade period of his most resonant tragedies — Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Crucible, A View From The Bridge — and two years after the death of the playwright’s father, a once-prosperous businessman who lost it all in the Depression. The play has never had the stature of his earlier works, but it’s in many ways finely wrought. It’s rich with metaphor: The furniture was once elegant, top of he line, but it’s old now, and tastes have changed; could the same be said of people? It presents the clash between the brothers not as one between good and evil (as in some of Miller’s more popular plays) but between two moral visions, each of which is given its due. It exhibits Miller’s great ear:
“With all the unsolved mysteries in the world,” Walter says of his two teenage sons, “they’re investigating the guitar.”
Miller gave the best bits to Solomon:
Victor: The ad says you’re a registered appraiser.
Solomon: I am registered, I am licensed, I am even vaccinated….Don’t laugh. The only thing you can do today without a license is you’ll go up the elevator and jump out the window…”
Solomon is not just comic relief, nor a dramatic device allowing the smooth unfolding of the necessary exposition. He is someone who has his own observations about the choices one makes in life – and, as befits his name, offers the others his wisdom.
DeVito takes to the part with aplomb, although it’s admittedly hard to envision DeVito as having once been (as Solomon says he was) the muscular bottom holding up the rest of the Five Solomons Jewish immigrant family acrobat act.
He and Hecht feel better cast than the two central actors. It is a struggle to accept Mark Ruffalo as Victor (though they are both 49), a worn-out cop assigned to the dull beat of the airports because he has too much integrity and too little political sense to go along to get along on the force. He’s in too good a shape, full of youthful vigor, and too good-looking to take on the mien of defeat.
Similarly, Tony Shalhoub is such a charismatic actor that we have to strain to imagine the Walter he says he used to be – an arrogant, humorless, driven money-making machine – easier to see the (mostly) relaxed Walter before us as having always been that way.
Both are good enough actors to transcend their “type,” and there are some satisfying sparks when they start going at it. But the heat generates less power than we’ve come to expect from a Miller play. Part of the problem is all the yelling. The only performers I remember who have completely mastered the art of yelling on stage were Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences. The play also feels dated – the anachronistic use of telephone books; middle-aged men who remember the Great Depression – and there is some dubious character logic: Would Victor really be so naive? Would Walter really keep such secrets from Victor for 40 years? People of any era should be able to respond to the themes of The Price, but the particulars, at least in this production, make it feel too distant to strike home with full force.
Before it opened for the first time, Miller told an interviewer:
“Usually when I’ve written a play I’ve run into feelings of despair and exhaustion, and when I’ve finished I‘ve felt all washed up. But I had a lot of joy writing this one. It was a continuing process of discovery, like opening a door into a room and finding another.”
Audiences are likely to feel less joy than Miller did, but every serious theatergoer should be pleased that the centennial of Miller’s birth in 2015 has brought new attention to his work.
The Price is on stage at American Airlines Theater (227 W 42nd St, between 7th and 8th Aves., New York, NY 10036) through May 7, 2017.
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Terry Kinney
Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Sarah J. Holden; Lighting Design by David Weiner; Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson; Makeup Design by Jill Astmann Karol.
Featuring Danny DeVito, Jessica Hecht, Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.