One of the season’s most anticipated play revivals, Arthur Miller’s The Price, opened on March 16 at American Airlines Theatre, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Being the master of contemporary drama, Miller’s riveting plays have helped shape the U.S. theater, as his works capture the very essence of the United States’ most important tradition—family. While The Price is one of Miller’s lesser known plays, it is full of themes that are universal, important and relevant, making this show worth a Broadway appearance. Victor Franz, played by Mark Ruffalo, was once a promising young scientist. He was smarter than everyone in his family. Unfortunately, when the Great Depression hit and destroyed the economy, Franz had to give up his ambitions and take care of his distressed father. Thirty years later, now a married cop who is soon turning 50, he has to go back home to sell the remainder of his parent’s estate.
In the opening of the show, Franz meticulously uncovers the furniture under dusty cloths, unwinding different memories of the house that once destroyed his dreams piece by piece. The past that is trapped in this house is something that he cannot let go. Franz’s patient wife Ester, his estranged older brother Walter and an eccentric furniture dealer Solomon Goodman, whom Franz finds in a phone book, come together to help Franz sell all of those haunting memories. Along the way, these people also force the protagonist to realize that he has been holding on to a delusion for the last 16 years.
The whole story pivots around a very existentialist question—what is the price of the furniture, of the past and of life? Led by Ruffalo, this stellar cast is working with an unorthodox play. It still upholds Miller’s dramatic legacy as it explores familial troubles, yet it lacks the author’s usual fatal dramatism. This is a true Chekhovian play: nothing really happens, yet everything happens all the time.
In The Price, there is a conflict that keeps recycling, without ever getting to any form of resolution. This is uncommon for a playwright known for his dramatic climaxes. There is no suspense to hide behind, just the characters and their mundane lives. The fact that this is such a well- written play with a lot of empty spaces could be the greatest gift to a director. Such nakedness is a beautiful canvas to paint a completely unique vision on, but Terry Kinney misses the memo. His directing ends up being a dull cage that only limits the show, trapping the actors in a room full of heavy furniture, unable to move.
Ruffalo is known for his raw and bold portrayal of his characters, making him one of the most exciting actors to watch on screen. He diffuses into his roles, absorbs into the scenery and fills the whole space with his unequivocal self. In this play, however, amid never leaving the stage for both acts, Ruffalo’s big artistic personality fails to make a strong presence. Even during the most powerful moments, he stills fails to deliver his inner passion. Add to that the fact that Ruffalo messes up his lines and talks into his hand and the audience feels almost disappointed. After all, many of them bought tickets to the show just to see him.
Television veteran Jessica Hecht, who plays Ester, and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Walter, are more familiar with the stage so they manage to deliver powerful performances without being compromised. Both of them create a balanced contrast to Franz, emphasizing Franz’s delusion with life. Still, at times they look uncomfortable, hurting Miller’s language, which requires incredible focus and character work. What is supposed to be a brutal avalanche of confessions in Act II ends up being a light breeze with a bit of blue skies.
The only joyous part of the show is the hilarious Danny DeVito. His grotesque portrayal of Goodman, an 89-year-old Jewish furniture dealer is the blood-pumping heart of the show. Goodman provides a comic relief to a very somber play, yet his character can be serious and reflective, having an almost Shakespearean quality to him. His Yiddish accent is sometimes overly exaggerated, but it only adds an extra charm to his mysterious persona. Every time Goodman sets his cane on stage, he immediately steals the spotlight, drawing incredible reactions from the audience.
If there is anything great about this production, it is the incredible work by the set designer Derek McLane. He puts together a heavy scenery full of antique furniture that not only represents the time period, but breathes with memories of the past. McLane’s work is pure symbolism. An old sofa with worn out cushions represents the father, whose spirit is still lingering over his two sons. A gilded harp is Franz’s mother, who had to give up her musical career in order to raise a family.
McLane’s set is a character of its own, becoming a pivotal force behind the drama where everything is about value and worthiness. Just last season, there were two brilliant revivals of Miller’s plays, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, the latter winning a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. Both plays were directed by a Belgian avant-garde director Ivo Van Hove, whose extraordinary artistic approach has brought Miller to a new level of relevance.
The Price fails to come anywhere even close to the cultural significance of Van Hove’s work, suffering from lackluster directing and unexceptional performances.