We are used to thinking of Arthur Miller as a restless moralist: an American superego salesman with a big territory to cover. But being a playwright, he is also, of course, a sensualist; his dialogue has great mouthfeel. The pleasure it gives is at its plainest and fullest in characters like Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old Russian-Jewish furniture dealer played by Danny DeVito in the Roundabout’s gripping if slightly muddy revival of Miller’s 1968 drama The Price. Arriving in the attic of a Manhattan brownstone to evaluate the thicket of breakfronts, chiffoniers, tables, chairs, carpets, and whatnots packing every inch of space, DeVito as Solomon delivers himself of such shtetl-cut judgments as, “Anything Spanish-Jacobean, you’ll sell quicker a case of tuberculosis,” and, “If they would build old hotels, I could sell that, but they only build new hotels.” As character writing, it’s dead-on; Miller knew the patois inside out. But DeVito also makes clear — between hailstorms of phlegm, in a crafty and totally delightful performance — that such lines are not merely for comic effect. It’s really Miller’s struggle to squeeze philosophy out of the chaos of living that gives his dialogue, and thus his plays, their superb chewiness. And in The Price, that struggle is not just the method, but the story.
It’s a story Miller knew too well. Like his own family, the Franzes in The Price were wealthy enough to employ a chauffeur (and collect nice furniture) before the Depression ruined them. The mother quickly died and the father, booted upstairs after losing the rest of the brownstone, went into a trance of miserly regret for the rest of his life. Their two college-age sons took radically different paths trying to get past the disaster. Victor, the younger, gave up his studies in order to provide for himself and his father, both of whom were reduced to eating “the outer leaves of lettuce from the Greek restaurant on the corner.” Eventually, with no funds to resume his training, he swallowed his dreams of becoming a scientist and took a job as a cop instead. Meanwhile, his older brother, Walter, looked after himself exclusively. He completed college and medical school, becoming a wealthy surgeon: “an instrument,” he says, “that cuts money out of people.” He sent his father only $5 a month; his struggling kid brother, nothing.
The play takes place half a lifetime later — “today,” Miller wrote, presumably meaning 1968. Victor (Mark Ruffalo) is now turning 50 and, with the brownstone about to be torn down, needs to sell the attic’s contents. He reaches out to Walter (Tony Shalhoub), with whom he has not spoken in 16 years, to see if he might like to keep anything for himself. But once the two of them reunite in that unhappy room, along with Victor’s frustrated wife, Esther (Jessica Hecht), the present collapses into the hole of the past. Who did what, and why, and what it meant are questions they evaluate as keenly as Solomon does their mother’s cracked harp. For Victor the cop, the upshot, naturally, is guilt: How could his brother have left him to eat garbage? For Walter, denial is at the heart of the matter: Victor, he feels, threw away his life not because he had to, but because he refused to believe the painful truth about their family. (“We invent ourselves, Vic, to wipe out what we know.”) As for Esther, who thought she was marrying a like-minded nonconformist but ended up stuck in the rat race anyway, the issue is regret and the solution is money. She can’t help admiring Walter, or at least his fine camel-hair coat, which, he says, cost “two gallstones.” For the pragmatic, which is to say the selfish man, everything is fungible, including family.
That the play’s real action has all taken place long in the past is a dramatic sacrifice Miller was apparently willing to make, in order to force his characters to struggle with questions of interpretation. How do we shape our lives from what we believe? He keeps the plot twisting with ideas instead of events; The Price doesn’t so much advance as it turns like a screw, deeper and deeper into the soft wood of memory. At some point in the second half — the play was originally done in one act, but Terry Kinney, the director of this revival, has divided it neatly in two — it becomes difficult to keep track of the box score of grievance, and you feel that Miller was not quite able, or willing, to clarify something that was naturally fuzzy. In any case, Kinney’s production slightly compounds the problem by leaving too much of the argumentation unshaped; the actors, too — though already powerful and moving — sometimes look as if they need more time to figure out where they are. Of the three Franzes, Shalhoub as Walter is furthest along, but then Walter has the upper hand and the sharpest lines. Ruffalo, who is heartbreakingly sincere onstage, and Hecht, a live wire in a perfect pink-sherbet suit by Sarah J. Holden, still seem like they are working it out in real time, which is exciting, if occasionally baffling. Of course, DeVito, as the clown cleaning up after the elephants and their memories, walks off with the show.
That was generous of Miller, and maybe unavoidable. If you set out to write a philosophical mystery, it’s probably going to be mysterious. I like that unresolved quality in The Price — the way the puzzle pieces not only don’t fit, but seem to be from different boxes. Perhaps the play’s shifting sympathies, and its vigorous support for opposing points of view, arises from Miller’s autobiography: When the Depression exiled his family from Harlem to Gravesend, he sold bread to help the family make ends meet, but made sure he finished college. He was both Victor and Walter: disgusted by the fact that there’s “just no respect for anything but money” in the world, and yet, by 1968, a man who had a lot of silk-stocking (or camel-hair) problems. No wonder, after the great plays about community that earned him those silk stockings, Miller turned in his 50s back to the family, leaving the world mostly out of the picture. (Derek McLane’s marvelous set merely hints at it, with baleful clouds in the background.) The Price is almost abstract in its argumentation, as if in a Socratic treatise. You’d think that a play so wordy and rangy would be unwelcome in today’s theatrical environment, which favors large, uncomplicated, single-minded action. But that’s why it’s so needed. It’s an old hotel, the kind they don’t build anymore.
The Price is at the American Airlines Theatre through May 7.