The contents of an entire Manhattan townhouse crowd one attic room in The Price, Arthur Miller's drama of old furniture and bad blood, now playing its fourth Broadway revival with the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. Heavy wooden furniture fills the limited floor space, with even more hanging precariously from the ceiling. An old harp occupies a place of prominence on Derek McLane's necessarily busy set. It would seem like a dark and stifling place, full of old ghosts, but an endless sky is always visible just beyond.
Originally appearing on Broadway in 1968, The Price tells the story of New York City cop Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo), who has finally decided to sell his father's furniture 16 years after the man passed away. The elder Franz lost a fortune during the crash of 1929, but he never gave up his possessions, moving everything to the attic where he continued to live until death. Victor hasn't spoken to his brother and co-heir, Walter (Tony Shalhoub), in all those years either, bitter that Walter found success in medicine while he had to drop out of school and tend to dad. But with the brownstone slated to be demolished, he can no longer wait. He has called furniture dealer Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito) to give him a good price for the whole lot. Victor's wife, Esther (Jessica Hecht), is hoping that the windfall will finally give him enough of a cushion to retire from the force. But once the brothers are back in the same room, surrounded by the trappings of their childhood, they cannot help but pick open old scabs.
Miller, who was never shy about discussing his work, said that The Price was a response to both the Vietnam War and a wave of downtown avant-garde theater that seemed to value the spontaneity of the moment over any examination of the past. What could be more contrary to that trend than a family drama in which the characters exhume old grudges in a room stuffed with antique furniture? One might argue that the connection to Vietnam is tenuous (the country is never mentioned, and only a few throwaway lines acknowledge the military and federal government), but Miller sincerely felt that the American love affair with the present prevented us from ever really absorbing the lessons of the past, a theme also present in his more famous play The Crucible. "It was as though the culture had decreed amnesia as the ultimate mark of reality," Miller wrote in 1999, eerily foreshadowing our own postfactual age.
Director Terry Kinney keeps us constantly pondering the connection between the past and the present in his straightforward production, which allows the playwright's words to come to the fore. Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen have expertly created the scratchy old record Victor plays when he examines the room in the opening moments of the play. David Weiner colors the mood with subtle lighting shifts. With the exception of the aforementioned hanging chairs and tables, everything is highly realistic, especially the performances.
Ruffalo moves with the confident, macho gait of a New York City policeman: He knows how to intimidate people with his voice and body language, but we wonder if this is all a way to mask a deep insecurity. Since we know that he grew up in a mansion taking fencing lessons, we also know that Victor's working class shtick is learned behavior.
Shalhoub brings a far more genteel presence to the stage, although his suit (designed by Sarah J. Holden) is a bit of a misfire: It is baggy in the upper arm and has the kind of synthetic sheen one would expect from a used car salesman, not a highly educated New York City doctor. Then again, he is trying to sell Victor and Esther an offer they can't refuse by insisting it would be better to take a hefty tax deduction by donating the furniture, rather than selling it outright. Still, we cannot help but sniff at his false sincerity. If he admires Victor so much, why haven't they spoken in 16 years? Ruffalo and Shalhoub have found an elusive brotherly chemistry: a rivalry tempered by affection that feels almost biblical.
With breathy diction that conveys unsatisfied longing, Hecht plays the character that is most forthright about her disappointment. "It’s like we never were anything, we were always about-to-be," she says about a life constantly looking over the horizon. It's a sentiment that will resonate with a large number of Americans — not Gregory Solomon, though.
DeVito gives an enthralling performance in his Broadway debut, immediately drawing all eyes to his diminutive frame each time he steps onstage. His command of the elderly Jewish furniture dealer's physicality and diction feels authentic, as if he were just coming up with his lines on the spot. Even the comedy feels natural, like when he chows down on a hardboiled egg (most of which ends up on the floor) during his appraisal. This is a larger-than-life character, to which DeVito brings a massive presence.
The Price only begins to feel draining in its operatic second act, when everyone gets a monologue. Strains of Clifford Odets emerge in these dramatic arias, in which the characters project their hopes and fears into the back row. It all could easily become tedious coming from lesser actors, but it never does here. Instead, Hecht, DeVito, Ruffalo, and Shalhoub lead us in an emotional workout that will leave you feeling the burn for days.