The Price, Arthur Miller’s 1968 play examining the relationship between two brothers who dealt with their family’s fall from (financial) grace during the Great Depression in very different ways, casts only four roles. But as younger brother Victor (played by the sometimes stumbling, but ultimately effective Mark Ruffalo) opens the show with a silent exploration of the overstuffed apartment of his youth, it becomes apparent that the doomed former home is more than a setting, but a fifth character, about to be left not because Victor has no unfinished business there, but because the city is tearing the entire apartment down. So, on a timeline he didn’t choose, Victor invites an appraiser into his family home to see what his mother’s harp, his father’s chair, and all the other accessories of the lavish life they led before the crash might be worth. And, to an even greater extent, see what their whole history and relationship might be worth to his estranged brother.
Gregory Solomon, possibly retired appraiser, played by a show-stealing Danny DeVito, is more than the comic relief of the show, he’s the life of it. As he wanders through the apartment, more willing to share stories of his colorful past than to name a price he’s willing to pay for the collection, Victor gets frustrated but is still obviously charmed by the funny and frank old man. It’s the clearest sense we get of who Victor is, after decades in a job he took out of necessity and a sense of familial responsibility. He’s angry, but not made up of pure bitterness—he can still laugh with a stranger. Later in the show, as his wife and brother suggest Mr. Solomon might not be offering the best price for the furniture, Victor bristles, seemingly just as upset he might be seen as naive as with the implication this last piece of family business is only about the money.
Each actor takes the stage in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the nearly fifty-year-old show to thunderous applause, making it clear that this is a show not just anchored, but completely cast with celebrities easily recognizable outside the theater world. Any audience member is just as likely to be excited to see “the guy from Monk” as a real life Avenger.
Jessica Hecht is delightful as Victor’s wife Esther, still obviously in her husband’s corner, even as she pushes him to shake things up in their life while he resists those changes. Tony Shalhoub as Walter, the big brother who went off to medical school while Victor gave up college to care for their father, plays the hard to read character perfectly, making his efforts to reconcile with his brother seem at once sincere but always slightly shady. Their eventual confrontation does seem undercut, however, by its fits and starts. Just when you think it’s over, it starts up again, not in a way that suggests emotions are still high, but as if they looked at their notes and realized they still had a few grievances to get out of the way.
A hallmark of Arthur Miller plays, especially his examinations of family dynamics through the years, are the twists. His twists are about more than revealing a secret to elicit a gasp from the audience—they force the characters receiving it to reexamine and reevaluate their lives up to that point. What The Price does so wonderfully is show how the facts, when applied to personal history, often matter less than the emotions tied to those memories.
A few weeks ago President and Malia Obama went to see The Price, another headline-making instance of a politician seeing a Broadway show. Even without the presidential connection, it’s hard to see a piece of art today and not make connections to the current political climate. At the performance I attended, the audiences’ long laughter at a throwaway line about not trusting the government left the cast pausing at a moment they obviously hadn’t figured in a laugh break. But maybe the biggest takeaway from the still relevant show is how far reaching the ripples of history can be into the lives of individuals. It’s a show about The Great Depression set in 1968. And its themes of looking back at your life and wondering how many of your choices were really your own, and which were forced on you by circumstance, still resonates with audiences today.
Starring:: Mark Ruffalo, Danny DeVito, Jessica Hecht and
Written by: Arthur Miller
Directed by: Terry Kinney
Through: May 7th at American Airlines Theater