An intense and at times funny look at family debts and the cost of life’s choices, a revival of Arthur Miller’s play The Price opened Saturday night at the Mark Taper Theater in Los Angeles. The four-character play, first presented in 1968, is uneven, but engrossing.
Initially, “the price” seemed to refer to the estimated money to be garnered in an estate sale. However, by the second half, the meaning expands to deal with family resentments, long-held grudges for past hurts never addressed – a timeless topic
The Price is set in the attic of a once upscale Manhattan brownstone that is soon to be demolished. The attic is filled with furniture and the dusty residue of the family that lived there. While he has passed on, the presence of the father that dominated their lives is felt in his empty armchair, where he apparently sat day in, day out for years after losing a fortune in the Depression.
Police officer Victor (played by Sam Robards), enters the attic and starts exploring its contents. His wife, Esther (Kate Burton), eventually joins him and their dialog explains the family history. The cop dropped out of college and became a policeman to support his father. The wife resents their economic status and does not even want to be seen at the movies with her husband in his uniform because everyone will instantly know their income. The cop wants to dispose of the father’s furniture and tries to reach his brother, a successful surgeon whom he resents and has not seen in 16 years. He also asks an antiques dealer (Alan Mandell), Gregory Solomon, to come by to buy it.
Painted as an insensitive monster, the brother, Walter (John Bedford Lloyd), arrives mid-play and the tone changes. The brothers defend their behavior and the price they paid dealing with the family dynamics. They also realize that their resentments really were based on the puppet master father trying to control their lives, in which none of them (Esther included) have been happy. The is ultimately the price they all paid for the father’s decisions nearly 30 years prior.
While the financial amounts quoted in the piece are dated (e.g., $2.50 for a movie), the play itself is not. Like many of Miller’s other plays, The Price uses the Depression and its resulting aftermath as dramatic devices. In real life, Miller himself had a father bankrupted during the times. He also typically has a character who is unable to compromise. Here, Victor sacrificed his schooling and career ambitions for a steady job to support his father at the price of his resentment and fear of making any changes in his life.
Mandell was a delightful scene stealer as Solomon, who at 89 is older than many of the objects he used to sell. Retired, but still interested in making money, he comments to Victor, “You must have looked up my name in a very old telephone book.” The most faceted character, Solomon is the comic relief in The Price, charming the audience in the first half of the play. The wise aptly named man who observes the family dynamic and has witticisms to offer about it.
Robards also stands out as the frustrated, unhappy policeman who just wants to get by without addressing his feelings. He is willing to take any price for the furniture to avoid dealing with the price of reliving the past.
Otherwise, The Price is sometimes sluggish and the interaction disappointing once the brothers face off. The actors conveyed their lack of warmth and awkwardness, but the characters (at least as directed here by Garry Hynes) never seem to connect. Even Esther and Victor only show any connection at the end.
The Price and its look at family debts and dynamics will be at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through March 22. The Mark Taper Forum is in downtown at the Music Center.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Feb. 21, 2015
Center Theatre Group
New York Times
Photos by Craig Schwartz/courtesy of Center Theatre Group