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Broadway Reviews

The Price

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 16, 2017

Arthur Miller's The Price Directed by Terry Kinney. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Sarah J. Holden. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Original music by Jesse Tabish. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Fight consultant Thomas Schall. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, Jessica Hecht, and Danny DeVito.
Theatre: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues

Mark Ruffalo and Danny DeVito
Photo by Joan Marcus

Subtlety is no great hallmark of Arthur Miller's plays. In some he hides this better (Death of a Salesman) than others (The Crucible), but each must contend with the playwright's natural didacticism that makes them at once compelling and frustrating. This affliction is seldom more pronounced in his oeuvre than it is in his 1968 effort The Price, something you're keenly aware of throughout Terry Kinney's otherwise fine revival for Roundabout at the American Airlines. The glimmering members of its all-star cast grasp for every chance they can to sparkle, only exacerbating the fact that isolated moments, of greatness and mediocrity alike, are about all this play is built on.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the person of Gregory Solomon, played, with ballpark-filling amounts of relish, by a delightful Danny DeVito making his Broadway debut. Though nominally a conflation of one ancient archetype (the money-minded Jew) with another of slightly more recent vintage (the Catskills comic), the part is twisted up with enough sympathy and warmth—however surface-level—that he becomes something a bit more important and mature. His framing as a furniture appraiser tasked with assessing the worth of an accumulated lifetime both helps and hurts this venture. Are this harp, that table, and the bed in the other room worth more than the dozens of other possessions that surround them? Is this style so antiquated that it hasn't a hope of bringing a fair price on the open market? Such are Gregory's concerns.

That they scarcely run much deeper does not stop DeVito, who assaults them with the unwavering brio he might, say, King Lear, and who nails all the laughs and likability inherent in Gregory's cajoling lines. Though tiny of stature, DeVito unleashes an enormous barking voice that grips the room (his and ours) and commands attention. Rather than submitting to the apparent structure of the man, he upends it to prove its vitality and his necessity here. From listening to his around-the-back insistent manner, you can tell exactly why Gregory has been successful and why he's survived well into his mid 80s and could just as easily endure to 110. He knows that life is about grabbing what you can, while you can, and making the best of it, and trusting that everything else will sort itself out.

The problem with Gregory isn't just that his style conflicts with and overwhelms everything else in The Price, it's that by doing so he could not be more thematically obvious. The lessons he represents are a brightly flashing counterbalance to the main story, about the family who hired him for the job. Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo), a career policeman who just passed retirement age and is pondering his future, picked Gregory's name out of a phone book to take charge of the houseful of stuff left behind by his deceased parents now that the building in which it's all crammed is about to be torn down.

Tony Shalhoub, Mark Ruffalo, and Jessica Hecht
Photo by Joan Marcus

Victor hopes to make enough money to placate his wife, Esther (Jessica Hecht), who is tired of living on the edge of poverty after nearly three decades, and to finally free himself from the shadow of his far more successful (and tight-fisted) brother, Walter (Tony Shalhoub). There is, of course, much more going on, as Walter, a doctor Victor believes made himself rich breaking his and his father's backs, has quite a different perspective on the life Victor is so concerned with escaping.

The central trio is robustly developed, as you'd expect from Miller; he knew his lower-middle class (upper-lower class?) subjects intimately, and always invests them with size and dignity. Victor is convincingly beat down by a life he should never have lived, Esther by her refusal to abandon the faint hopes that have sustained and enslaved her, and Walter by the success that's long separated him from his family. And each of these concerns is respected and addressed.

But Miller's method of doing so results in a plot that synopsizes far better than it plays. He so front-loads all the questions and rear-loads all the answers (including some to questions that aren't asked) that The Price feels less like a finished drama than a staged reading of a sketchbook, with every idea verbalized but few connecting threads tying them all together. Much must be taken on faith, if faith that you're not given a chance to build on your own; it's dropped upon you when needed. The only way for this to work (as well as it can, anyway) is if the cast is so in tune that you don't question the presence of the divisions between them from the get-go; you discover what the issues are, not that they are.

Good though the members of this cast might be, they fall short of that ideal and don't register as either an integrated family or an integrated ensemble. Ruffalo's existentially exhausted Victor doesn't occupy the same emotional universe as Hecht's upscale-slumming Esther or Shalhoub's low-key, good-guy-gone-wrong Walter. Each of their performances would make sense alone, and their monologues, temporarily walled off from the direct input of others, are as strong as this production gets. But because the last third of the play revolves around exploring how and why linked souls can be forced to make different, life-altering choices, the explanation stutters when coming from three people who aren't withering appendages of the same issue-laden family.

If Kinney could have unified them more, his staging is otherwise strong, with the oppressive nature of the brothers' personal history kept constantly in sharp focus. Derek McLane's dreamlike set highlights this, with its many floating furniture pieces and imposing cityscape in the background; it's aided by Sarah J. Holden's class-conscious costumes and David Weiner's moody lights, which capture the same mood, though Jesse Tabish's original music veers a bit too much toward melodrama to support the Serious Intentions that are otherwise out in full force.

Except, of course, with DeVito, though you won't find yourself doubting that he and Gregory take their charge seriously. They land with more immediate power than anything else, and if that's disrupting to the fragile alchemy, it makes those chunks of the evening enjoyable. Still, misapplied charm can grate, and as Gregory keeps injecting himself into the action just when he's needed to resolve a simmering conflict, you may wish he'd just let the leads alone to work on their problems in peace. There's no mistaking Miller's hand in driving his points home, as with a jackhammer. The unavoidability of that is all the more reason to treat The Price with the gentle, thoughtful touch it doesn't receive enough of here.


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