Also see John's review of Bring It On
Victor and Walter Franz haven't spoken to each other for the better part of two decades. Victor, a police officer, for many years was caregiver to their father while Waltera successful and affluent physicianoffered minimal financial help and no emotional support or physical assistance. Victor resents Walter for the perceived abandonment and the two have been out of touch for many years past their father's death. As the building which was owned by their father and in which they both grew up is about to be demolished, Victor has arranged for the sale of all the belongings in the attic to the antique dealer Gregory Solomon. As Walter is half-owner with Victor of the items, Walter has asked Victor to participate in the sale and approve of the price negotiated, but Walter has failed to respond to any of Victor's messages. Unexpectedly, Walter shows up at the brownstone just as Victor is completing the sale to Solomon, and the sorting out of grudges begins.
The Price departs from expectations of an Arthur Miller play, at least for someone who, like me, who knows Miller primarily for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. The stakes are not as great as those of the two earlier plays and in fact The Price has much comic relief and a less heavy tone. Originally performed in one act (Raven breaks it up into two sections here), the first half is mostly setup between Walter, his wife Esther, and the dealer Solomon. As Raven has divided it, Walter doesn't appear until just before intermission, so the big confrontation between the two brothers (once it really gets going), consumes less than half of the two-hour play. It feels a little too simplistic and too compact in presenting an awkward reunion that evolves (or devolves) into a knock-down confrontation.
Even so, The Price provides four richly drawn characters who are all performed impressively under Michael Menendian's sharp and fast-paced direction. Chuck Spencer is the cop Walter, the central figure who is onstage throughout nearly the whole play. It gives us the chance to learn much about Victor. He's quiet and unassumingclearly a romantic of sorts and quite the opposite of a stereotypical cop. Walter most of the time seems to be conflict averse, until his resentment of Walter boils over. Spencer gives us all these layers of Victorhis generosity and kindness, but also his deep regrets and resentments over the way his life has turned out. It's a wonderful performance that reveals its complexity as the evening goes on. Jon Steinhagen brings a delicious nervous energy to the role of brother Walter. Trying to be generous, and appearing to want and need reconciliation with his brother, Walter desperately wants to control the events of this afternoon. Steinhagen skillfully navigates these transitions as he gradually reveals Walter's secrets. Those two actors are well-supported by Joann Montemurro as Estherearthy and kind, a supportive if sometimes nagging wife; and by Leonard Kraftcharming and funny as the wily 89-year-old dealer (whom Victor found in what Solomon says must have been "a very old phone book").
Miller's skill in creating such rich characters, even in a play with more modest ambitions than his two greatest works, is testimony to his place as one of the finest 20th century American playwrights. The chemistry of this fine quartet of actors, who have worked together frequently at Raven under Menendian's direction, serves the piece well.
The Price will be performed through April 14, 2012, at the Raven Theatre's East Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. For tickets, visit www.raventheatre.com or call 773-338-2177.