'The Price': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
From left: Alan Mandell and Sam Robards in 'The Price'
An outstanding cast mines Miller's flawed work for an odd mix of laughter and rumination.

Sam Robards and Kate Burton star at the Mark Taper Forum in Arthur Miller's rarely performed chamber piece, which proves both problematic and profound.

It seems unfair to hold artists to the standard of their best work, but anything written by Arthur Miller will inevitably be compared to his monumental early quartet: All My Sons, Death of a SalesmanThe Crucible and A View From the BridgeThe Price premiered in 1968, about 20 years after Salesman, and while it's rewarding to witness a great playwright grappling with complicated issues concerning personal obligation and the income gap, this is a frustrating work which, despite its fine ingredients, feels half-baked.

Victor Franz (Sam Robards) arrives early in the attic of his family home to meet a furniture dealer who will empty the place of their belongings in time for the wrecking ball. Matt Saunders’ set is shaped by furniture stacked on either side of a staircase where, upon entry, actors climb to stage level. An old armchair sits downstage center with a phonograph on one side and a harp on the other. There are no walls or windows, and none are needed as memory makes up the framework of the play that will reunite Victor with his estranged brother, Walter (John Bedford Lloyd), after 16 years.

But first, Victor’s wife, Esther (Kate Burton), arrives, filling in some backstory on her husband as well as letting him know she's weary of his midlife malaise and career inertia. Although he’s past retirement in the NYPD, Victor doesn’t know what else to do but walk a beat. The fact is, he was once a promising student, more so than Walter — who nevertheless went on to become a successful surgeon — while Victor dedicated his life to public service.

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Just as the audience is anticipating the arrival of Walter, they instead get 89-year-old Gregory Solomon (Alan Mandell), a soft-spoken furniture trader who just might be the funniest of all Miller’s creations. Mandell takes over the later scenes of the first act, planting the impression that we might have stumbled upon that rarest of birds — an Arthur Miller comedy.

With his fluttery hands, hangdog demeanor and soft Yiddish accent, the actor mines his dialogue for its best laughs without ever resorting to clowning. If there’s a fault with Mandell's performance, it’s that it’s too good. He literally steals the show and takes it in an unexpected direction. The character's age and preoccupation with the past, personal loss and his attraction to the harp (a wedding gift to Victor’s parents), make him a stand-in for a key figure in the play’s second act who never actually appears — Victor and Walter’s father.

As the second act begins, the two brothers circle each other like wounded animals, burrowing at the root cause of their estrangement. Victor forewent a college education in order to take care of their father who was wiped out in the crash of 1929, while Walter put aside family obligations to study medicine. Where one showed compassion and personal sacrifice, the other acted out of self-interest.

When Victor needed a tuition loan of $500, Walter refused to offer help, telling him to ask their father. With enough belongings to sell for the amount, and another $4500 on hand, the money was there, but instead Victor wound up skipping college and becoming a cop. “You quit,” Walter tells him. “That’s the long and short of all your ideology. It is all envy.” Miller's words recall how Mitt Romney decades later described President Barack Obama’s opinions on income inequality: “The bitter politics of envy.”

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“As the world now operates, the qualities of both brothers are necessary to it,” wrote Miller in 1968, and he would probably say the same thing today. Walter worked hard, prospered and made a career out of saving lives. And as a cop, Victor made a career out of preserving the peace but has hardly prospered. Each made a choice. Who made the right choice is for the audience to decide.

Miller calls for an empathetic portrayal of Walter, stipulating that “the actor playing Walter not regard his attempts to win back Victor’s friendship as manipulation.” Lloyd adheres a little too closely to that sentiment, wearing his heart on his sleeve. Even so, the cast is well constituted: seasoned actors delving to the heart of complex characters layered with psychological veracity and emotional resonance.

But what does any of this have to do with old Gregory, who had everyone laughing in act one? And what about Esther, who stands riveted next to the golden harp like she’s become another piece of furniture? With so much exposition in the second act, pre-eminent Irish theater director Garry Hynes seems to forget about blocking her actors, who at some points stand like statues while reciting lines. A bit too reverential to Miller's text, Hynes might have condensed some of this modest little chamber piece, which runs an epic two-and-a-half hours. In fact, it feels like the second act might have begun as a one-act play, with Gregory and Esther added later to round it out into a full-length play.

Emotionally and intellectually compelling at its core, The Price offers the power of Miller’s ideas confined by the limitations of his material. Robards carries the night as the heart of the play but gets a strong assist from Mandell, who provides desperately needed comic relief. With themes of social sacrifice and income inequality as relevant today as the day it was written, The Price represents a chance to see a high-caliber production of a rarely performed work by an American master.

Cast: Sam Robards, Kate Burton, Alan Mandell, John Bedford Lloyd

Director: Garry Hynes

Playwright: Arthur Miller

Set designer: Matt Saunders

Costume designer: Terese Wadden

Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls

Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers

Presented by Center Theatre Group