My next Wednesday matinee was by another favorite playwright of mine – Arthur Miller. And the play was one of his that I wasn’t familiar with. The Price is a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre, where I saw Long Day’s Journey into Night last May. I was again sitting in the very last row, which gives you an excellent view of the stage. I was happy to see that it was a full house.
The play stars Mark Ruffalo as Victor Franz, a 50-year-old police sergeant, who could have retired 3 years ago; Jessica Hecht as his wife Esther Franz, who wants her husband to retire and worries about the money they don’t have; Tony Shalhoub as Walter Franz, Victor’s brother who is a successful doctor; and Danny DeVito as Gregory Solomon, a furniture appraiser and buyer. The location is NYC and the time is fall 1968. The brothers’ father died 16 years before and they haven’t seen or spoken to each other since. The brownstone where the family had lived is being torn down so the attic of the brothers’ uncle’s home where they grew up has to be emptied of all the furniture. Their father had lost everything in the 1929 crash and the family had to move from their home to that attic.
The stage set is furniture covered in sheets with stairs leading up to the floor on the right. You can see water towers and clouds out the window. There is furniture everywhere – against the back and hanging from the ceiling. It opens with the sun shining through the skylight and moving around the room as the days (years?) go by while piano and strings play. Victor enters, takes off his police cap, jacket, and belt with his holster and other equipment. (I’ve been watching a lot of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and I immediately thought Ruffalo looked like Bobby Goren.) He plays around with a fencing foil and helmet he finds in a corner and we get our first laugh. The biggest surprise for me was how many funny moments there are in the play. Victor takes the sheets off the furniture and it’s obviously old furniture from the 1920s. Esther comes up the stairs and she and Victor discuss getting a good price for the furniture and her desire for him to retire. We find out that Victor dropped out of college to care for his father while Walter only sent $5 a month for his father’s care. Esther thinks it’s only fair that they keep all the money paid for the furniture because Walter doesn’t need it and doesn’t deserve it. Solomon barely makes it up the stairs – he’s an 89-year-old Russian-Jewish man, who won’t take any shit and tries his best to control everything around him. At one point while talking with Victor, Solomon pulls a hard-boiled egg out of his briefcase, cracks the shell, and eats it but continues talking so egg is spraying across the stage. I think I saw Ruffalo trying to suppress a smile. At the end of Act I, Victor and Solomon make a deal and Solomon is in the middle of paying Victor when Walter unexpectedly shows up – he runs up the stairs and says hello. At the start of Act II, the three men are standing in exactly the same place and the play continues. There’s a lot of back and forth between the brothers and sometimes Esther or Solomon interrupt or join in. Grudges and secrets are revealed and there’s no feel-good resolution.
The price is what Solomon pays for the furniture. It’s also the price Victor paid for sacrificing for his father and for staying stuck in the past. The price Walter paid for distancing himself from the family and getting his freedom while keeping secrets from Victor. The price Esther pays for staying with a man who won’t better himself.
Two lines by Solomon – “You can’t rely on the federal government,” probably got the biggest laughs and applause. And when he tells Esther that she should be quiet and let the men handle the business – that got a huge moan. I wonder how that line was received in 1968.
All the actors gave amazing performances. Ruffalo is on stage the entire time while the others come in and out. It’s an intense play and no one wavers.
And the creative team was also outstanding – director Terry Kinney, set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Sarah J. Holden, lighting designer David Weiner, sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and hair designer Tom Watson. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis did a great job because I never questioned the authenticity of their New York accents. And the original music by Jessie Tabish put you in the proper mood.
By Carene Lydia Lopez