In 1999, during an interview at the 92nd Street Y (then YMHA) later published in the Paris Review, the playwright Arthur Miller told an interviewer he had run into Mel Brooks while on vacation in the Caribbean in 1968, just before the premiere performance of The Price.
“I’d never known him before,” recalled Miller. “He said, ‘Well, what are you doing now?’ I said, ‘Well, I just wrote this play that we’re about to put on. It’s called The Price.’ He said, ‘What’s it about?’ I said, ‘Well, there are these two brothers...’ He said, ‘Stop, I’m crying!’”
You can see why there might be tears watching it: a lesser-known play in the Miller canon, it focuses, like Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, on the emotional knots of fathers and sons, and a lot of very vexed ghosts of the past, and money and its own complicated and perverting force within families. This, as many know only too well, only becomes evident after the death of a parent, and the divisions of the spoils begins.
As Miller once told Humanities magazine, “The two greatest plays ever written were Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, and they're both about father-son relationships, you know. So this goes back.” He and his own father Miller once likened to “two search lights on different islands.”
Living through the Depression, Miller said in the same interview, had left him with “the feeling that the economic system is subject to instant collapse at any particular moment—I still think so—and that security is an illusion which some people are fortunate enough not to outlive.”
In the new Broadway production of The Price, Mark Ruffalo plays the central character, Victor Franz, a stolid New York cop who has come to his parents’ townhouse in his navy blue uniform to host an antique dealer, Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito, making his Broadway debut). Solomon has come to appraise the value of the residence’s furniture, held in the attic where the action takes place, with a view to buying it all before the property is demolished. And so the negotiations, suspicion and bluster begin. No theatrical pun intended, but DeVito steals the show.
What looks like a simple furniture transaction turns out to be anything but. For one, there is Esther (Jessica Hecht), Victor’s wife, who loves him—indeed their quiet mutuality, even while acknowledging the differences between them, is one of Miller’s most charming, recurring theme in the play.
But Esther’s dissatisfaction, her desire for money and a materially more upscale life is the niggling thorn between them, and probably wouldn’t be quite so hurtful if it didn’t find an embodiment at the end of act one with the appearance of Walter (Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame), Victor’s charismatic, well-dressed and considerably ritzier brother. Just as in other Miller plays, the unseen characters, here the boys’ father, remains a fulcrum of the play.
The Price—this Roundabout Theatre production is directed by Terry Kinney—is not a fast play. Nor are its stakes as abyss-facing as Miller at his most unsparing. All these characters will carry on at the end.
But it is, at moments, a piercing study on familial devotion, betrayal, and disillusion. The appraisal being conducted is not just the cost of furniture, but the cost of relationships; how much we invest in them compared to how much we get out of them, financially and emotionally.
With the end of their father’s life, what are Victor and Walter left with? The recriminations of the past, now filtered through the exacerbating stress of present-day money, and reuniting not for a birthday or a happy occasion but to sell possessions and objects off. Financial transactions, it emerges, have been the family’s inner currency for years—disastrously.
Derek McLane’s crowded set design is significant: There are so many objects on stage that present a suitably claustrophobic saleroom-cum-obstacle course for all the actors. This apartment is crowded with furniture: choc-full of sofas, a giant harp, bureaus, wardrobes, dressers, tables; to convey the crowdedness all the objects hang from the ceiling as well as standing on the floor. Outside are a background set of shadowy water-towers, those lyrical custodians of the New York skyline.
Victor may be the central character in The Price, but he’s also the most flagging (and sometimes it’s just impossible to hear Ruffalo through his macho New York-accented braying): maybe it’s his plodding determination to play at life with as straight a bat as possible. He is 50 and feeling it. Solomon may be much older, but he is a ball of energy. Victor’s determination to keep the transaction brief, and on his terms, is torpedoed immediately. Thank goodness: his dourness would be too heavy an anchor, even if it's true to the character Miller intended.
DeVito, playing the kind of irreverent, hilarious, irritation-generating dynamo that he also does so brilliantly on film—steals the audience’s attention, especially when it comes to consuming an egg, the shell of which he cracks with his cane. He then eats it with the gusto that Cookie Monster attacks his cookies. His character is 89, and in a long, colorful life has been three times married and somehow acquired a discharge from the British Navy. But he, too, is hiding a family tragedy, and DeVito’s emotional register shifts perfectly at the moment of its revelation.
Hecht skillfully does as much as she can do with very little, Miller’s vision of her seems beached between acquisitive shrew and frustrated peacemaker, with little shading in between—it is Hecht’s subtle coquettishness that adds an edge to her interactions with Walter. Shalhoub is also unexpected: he looks as smooth as any stage villain should yet his desire for money isn’t simple greed, and he doesn’t patronize his brother, despite having materially achieved so much more. He puts the price of his beautiful coat at “two gallstones”—operated on “a big textile guy” who keeps sending him things.
Money is the constant rub. Their resentment is rooted in Walter giving just $5 a month to the running of the household when Victor had moved in with their father to take care of him. And now Victor is willing to sell off the furniture for $1100 to Solomon. Well, not if the more eyes-on-the-prize twinning of Walter and Esther have anything to do with it.
But the family mystery and betrayal runs much deeper; the two brothers have, Victor most appallingly, been gulled by their father, and from that has flowed all these years of resentment. Why, Victor wants to know, didn’t Walter help fund his way through college? Was their father really so poor? Why, Esther, wants to know, when harsh truths are revealed, have she and Victor lived so poorly? Solomon’s transactional offer turns out to be the most honestly proffered of the evening. Money has been Victor’s jailer; Esther sees it as a probably elusive key to a happier life for them all.
The tragedy seems in a lower-key than the most dramatic Miller we see on Broadway. The play has a scratchy melancholy to it, rather than a cataclysmic finality—with the characters rooted in the airless apartment, and not really capable of going anywhere. The play comes to feel a little stilted, its action as arrested as the characters’ emotions.
The price of family devotion and betrayal, Miller implies, is one that can taint emotions and bank accounts for years. As Miller told the Paris Review, he wrote the play to show “that the past counted, that they (Victor and Walter) were creatures of the past just as we all were. They had affected to negate the past, cut themselves off from it, and throw it in a wastebasket. As it turned out, they were as much affected by their fathers and grandfathers. There was no way to escape it, any more than you could escape the beat of your own heart.”
The Price is at the American Airlines Theatre, 227West 42nd Street, New York City. Book tickets here.