Watching Artists Rep’s finely pitched new production of Arthur Miller’s play The Price is like listening to a classic piece of chamber music you haven’t heard in a long time: four voices, integrated yet distinct, rising and falling and weaving, sometimes in harmony, sometimes strikingly dissonant, each voice surging into the lead, then receding, in a constant interplay. It’s a welcome reminder of the beauties of the mid-20th century American realist theater, those works from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by the likes of Miller, Tennessee Williams (whose Suddenly, Last Summer has also just opened in town, at Shaking the Tree), Lillian Hellman, William Inge, the latecomer Edward Albee and the like, each drawing in his or her own way from the pattern set by Eugene O’Neill. As different from one another as they were alike, these writers nevertheless shared some crucial qualities. Shaped by the Great Depression and World War II, they were engaged socially, concerned with the links between private and public behavior: “Mendacity!,” Big Daddy’s roar in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, might have been a unifying cry. They believed in the lyrical and persuasive power of language. And they made well-crafted plays, dramas that were structured to seem inevitable both emotionally and theatrically.
The Price, whose title is meant both literally and metaphorically, arrived a little later than Miller’s run of great plays, opening on Broadway in 1968. It lost that season’s Tony Award to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps signaling a shift in public appetite toward a brighter, more playful and irreverent style of show. Stoppard, Pinter, Shepard and others still knew their Greeks, who were essential to O’Neill and the post-O’Neill generation, but they were tipping toward postmodernism: rearranging the pieces, joking with the verities, dabbling in creative destruction. The Price still has a ’50s earnestness in its voice, that sense that every thought and action has intense moral significance. It’s a play of slightly before its time, and as I watched the four fine actors at Artists Rep I was aware that (a) I was watching a period piece, and (b) it was a thrilling experience. Good theater can fuse the past and present into a vital contemporary moment.
The play is something like a Bartók quartet, an immersion into intimate dissonance, in which clashing ideas are bound into an exciting tension tinged with sadness, and resolutions are fleeting but profound. It opens in a well-worn New York walkup apartment, stuffed with furniture from an earlier age (the set is by Jack O’Brien), the muted bleats of city traffic (sound by Sharath Patel) seeping in from the outside world. Victor Franz (Michael Elich), a lean and tired-looking New York cop, walks in, looks around, cranks an old Victrola, puts on a comedy record that consists of peals of laughter. He’s soon joined by his wife, Esther (Linda Alper), wearing a stylish dress suit that looks like one of Nancy Reagan’s (costumes by Alison Heryer) and an air of exasperation. We’ve dropped in on an old argument, a long-brewing disappointment; years of affection and regret underlie a conversation we know is intense, even if we’re not sure immediately what it’s all about. Soon enough, we learn it’s about money: at long last Victor’s getting ready to sell off the contents of his dead parents’ apartment, and Esther, who is tired of living on a policeman’s pay, dearly hopes he’ll push for a good price. She wants some nice things and freedom from worry. Victor, who believes he could have been a big man in science if he hadn’t left college to care for his father, wants his pride.
Victor and Esther are joined by the booming brass presence of Gregory Solomon (Joseph Costa), an almost nonagenarian furniture appraiser and dealer, who wheezes up the stairway with an air of bumptious authority and a briefcase packed with snacks. Solomon knows the business; Solomon knows about people; Solomon wants to cut a deal. And just about when things are settled, in walks the fourth member of this dissonant quartet: Walter Franz (Michael Mendelson), Victor’s ultra-successful doctor brother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in 16 years, and whom Victor blames for the way his life went sour. Walter has a deal to offer, too, a plan that would pad the price considerably.
Miller’s setup is expert, his balancing of the economic and emotional scales keen. Prices, as it turns out, aren’t always measured in coin, and a modest cost in capital terms might be a very steep one in morality and pride. Things get knotted up, and some things don’t show up on the balance sheet. From this point, it’s up to the director and actors to carry the play, and Artists Rep’s ensemble, directed sensitively by Adriana Baer, does it beautifully.
A huge amount of experience is on this stage, and the sum for the audience is an uncommon amount of pleasure: these are four veteran actors who’ve been around, and grown, and ripened well, and know how to burrow deeply inside a role and play it full. Elich carries a slump of anger and repressed pride to go with Victor’s genuine sense of righteousness. Alper is somehow sharp and soft at once, warm and capable and just about an inch from an explosion. Mendelson, who grows ever more graceful with age, is surprisingly embracing in what could be (but is definitely not here) a cool and curdling role. And Costa dances just this side of caricature as Solomon without ever crossing the line: a bit of a shaman, a bit of a snake-oil salesman, a bit of a Borscht Belt comic, a bit of a chastened and lonely ancient man, the unlikely and exuberant outsider straw that stirs this volatile family drink.
This is Victor’s story, in the end, his discoveries and decisions to be made, and as the play ends it’s uncertain what price he has and hasn’t paid; what’s he’s cost himself and what he’s gained. The composition concludes with more dissonance than resolution, and strangely, that feels right: something deep has happened. The questions hover, and do not settle. Victor, and Arthur Miller, and this production, ask: What matters? What is the truth? What should be done? In that old-fashioned and ever-contemporary American realist way, the questions linger long after the light fades, unanswered and unanswerable.
The Price continues at Artists Rep through April 26. Ticket and schedule information are here.