The Price (Review)

Arthur Miller delves into the detritus of broken promises

The Price is neither the last nor the least of Arthur Miller’s plays — although it arrived later (1968) and is certainly a lesser effort than the two seminal plays that elevate him, along with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, to the very pinnacle of American playwriting. Now, through Nov. 23 at the Madisonville Arts Center, four Blue Chips Players are airing out the piece in a sometimes rambling, mostly vigorous, ever contentious production that’s not unlike beating the dust out of an old carpet. Don Volpenhein, who recently appeared so effectively in New Edgecliff Theatre’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directs.

In its narrower, grumpier, less lyrical way, The Price deals with the same questions as Death of a Salesman (1949): Sibling stress; father-son tension; parental manipulation; failures and refusals to communicate — in other words, the detritus of broken promises, mistaken motives, damaged affection, hurt feelings and simmering silences that litter many family histories. Estranged brothers Victor (David Levy) and Walter Franz (Tom Manning) have not spoken for 16 years. Now they — and Victor’s near-bipolar wife Esther (Aretta Baumgartner) — meet in the cluttered attic of their late father’s brownstone. They’re ostensibly there to dispose of his furniture and the other physical leavings of his life.

Actually, there’s more. Inevitably, old pains and angers spew anew. Charge and counter-charge. Thrust, parry and defend. You said. No, you said. The old man had been destroyed in the crash of 1929. Younger son Victor gave up dreams of college, joined the police force and supported the old man. Older son Walter barely helped, pressing forward in his determination to become a successful (and wealthy) surgeon. His marriage crashed; his children wandered away. Victor and Esther postponed having kids. Now nearing retirement Victor is uncertain about their future. Walter claims he wants rapprochement. And might think that he does. Victor’s not ready for that and grows irritated with Esther for siding with Walter. Old sores fester. Old secrets rise up. Old scores demand settlements that will change all of them forever.

It seems the old man held out on Victor. But Victor knew, sort of. Everybody betrayed everybody else or, as Walter finally shouts out, nobody betrayed anybody else because there was never any genuine familial feeling to betray.

Act One is dominated by the curious appearance of 89-year-old Gregory Solomon, the furniture appraiser Victor has summoned. Both physically and metaphorically he serves a sort of ringmaster/referee function for the brothers. It’s a strange role that plays like a Yiddish vaudeville turn dropped into the middle of an otherwise searing drama. Give Arnie Shayne this: He plays the role as written, with no more mannerisms and shtick than Miller supplied. On opening night the 10 people in the audience found him richly amusing.

Act Two strains credulity when it keeps the old man off stage for illogically long stretches — supposedly appraising stuff in another room — while the brothers fulminate at each other and the wife skitters around snapping at their heels.

Levy and Manning are well matched in volume and emotive power. Baumgartner is beautifully costumed, perhaps beyond the means of a cop’s wife, but never quite gets Esther into focus as she skitters from spite to fright to headlong flight. Act Two needs greater variety and nuance from all hands. And the whole thing would profit from an overarching sense that, sadly, the tragedy in which these people are swimming is of their own making.

The enormous stage is so jammed with chairs, tables, chests, musical instruments, clothes, chandeliers and assorted trash that the set threatens to overwhelm the play. Deems Meyer is credited with loading it up into the most intrusively overdressed set I’ve ever seen on a stage.

THE PRICE, presented by Blue Chip Players at the Madisonville Arts Center, continues through Nov. 23. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.