Some plays make you question the cost of your ticket. Arthur Miller's fierce 1968 family drama, "The Price," makes you question literally the cost of living.
The appearance of the third Miller revival on Broadway in three seasons, after the success of "A View from the Bridge" and "Death of a Salesman," suggests that some theatergoers want more than easy laughs and cheap consolation.
In this brilliantly bracing production, "The Price" delivers both tough comedy and an unflinching vision of the toll that life demands from us. In the wrong hands, this play can be like being stuck in an elevator with a couple in the middle of a bitter divorce. With so much anger on a single, unchanging set, it seems to embody W.B. Yeats' phrase, "great hatred, little room."
Miller's tale of two estranged, middle-aged brothers, brought together by the sale of their dead father's furniture, can be suffocating as the pair unleash years of resentment.
Vic, now a cop, sacrificed his education and ambition to take care of their father, a rich man who lost everything in the Wall Street crash. Walter, now a wealthy doctor, put himself first. And since nothing can change the past, they seem destined to keep paying the price of those choices.
With this intense focus, "The Price" doesn't have the epic lyricism of "Death of a Salesman" or the grand formality of "A View From the Bridge." And yet, under James Naughton's beautifully judged direction, it exerts an unbreakable grip.
One of the reasons is Bob Dishy's mesmerizing performance as Solomon, the ancient dealer who comes to buy the furniture. It is in this role that we can see Miller's genius. He uses Solomon as Shakespeare uses his fools and clowns to provide both comic relief and a larger perspective on the unfolding calamity.
And Dishy's portrayal is big enough to contain both the humor and the wisdom. Shambling but regal, ludicrous but strangely noble, he lifts the play out of its claustrophobic confines and into the cold light of tragedy.
This allows the other actors to give performances as clear, sharp and lacerating as broken glass. The play may not offer the great individual roles that Brian Dennehy and Elisabeth Franz filled with such magnificence in "Death of a Salesman" but this cast fuses itself into one unforgettable character.
In his hovering movements and wary glances, Jeffrey DeMunn as Vic catches the despair of a man who can let nothing rest, especially himself.
Lizbeth Mackay, as his wife, Esther, brings out the bitterness of life as an innocent bystander in a domestic war zone.
And Harris Yulin's Walter is as battered, hollow and potentially explosive as a dormant volcano.
Naughton's quiet, subtle direction is perfectly tuned to the play's emotional frequencies. He is alive to the power of understatement. He knows when to hold back the passion and when to let it rip.
Above all, he and his cast are completely true to Miller's vision. Although it often surprises with its humor and its vividness, this production does not pull any punches.
It has the courage of Miller's convictions. And that, at a time when drama is often afraid to speak about harsh truths, is priceless.
Arthur Miller's funniest play comes electrifyingly alive in the splendid revival of his 1968 "The Price" at the Royale Theatre.
Director James Naughton and four brilliant players attain an intense simplicity that's beyond praise. They mine every ounce of humanity, emotion and humor in this confrontation between two brothers who haven't spoken in 16 years, and whose family brownstone in Manhattan is about to be torn down.
We're in the attic - a cathedral of clutter piled high with chairs, tables, mirrors, musical instruments, the whole detritus of a once-rich family as designed by Michael Brown.
Victor Franz, a tightly wound cop, and his wife, Esther, are the first to arrive. Victor, played with simmering explosiveness by Jeffrey DeMunn, is the good son, the one who stayed home to take care of dad, broken by the crash, and wrecked his life.
Lizbeth Mackay skillfully makes Esther a purse-clutching, paranoid, incipient alcoholic who is forever pushing her reluctant husband to make money on things.
The marital tension (wonderfully observed and written) is relieved by the arrival of Miller's most hilariously lovable character, an 89-year-old appraiser named Gregory Solomon. Bob Dishy, clad in a felt hat and a tattered greatcoat with Persian lamb lapels, eating a hard-boiled egg and carefully shoveling the shells into his briefcase, gives one of the great comic performances recently on the New York stage.
Dishy creates a sage old man with a Yiddish accent who left Russia 65 years ago and who was once an acrobat in vaudeville ("Jews have been acrobats since the beginning of the world."). He married, at 75, a woman who is inordinately fond of birds. This glorious geezer, who has known his share of suffering, incarnates a wisdom deeper than the play's official themes.
Brother Walter arrives in the second act. He's the bad brother, a rich doctor who went to med school while Victor had to drop out of college.
Harris Yulin cleverly presents a Walter as unlikable at first, with his camel's hair coat, snotty attitude toward Solomon and sleazy tax write-off schemes, but he lets us gradually see that Walter's not a heavy.
The heart of the second act is a pitched battle between the brothers over choices made and paths taken in 1936, 30 years back.
For Victor, the culprit is capitalism. "There was no mercy anywhere" in the America of 1936, he insists. For Walter, the culprit is father. "There was no love in this house," he says.
So is "The Price" Marxist or Freudian? Who must be slain, Hoover-cum-FDR or Laius?
The author tries for even-handedness, but in his gut he's with Victor. But the play is, so to speak, wiser than its writer, for it ends with Solomon, alone in the attic, putting a Laughing Record on an old Victrola and cracking up.
Life trumps ideology.
Who is that crafty old codger with the borscht belt patter, the one who has the audience in stitches at the Royale Theater? No, it's not Jackie Mason (good guess, though), whose one-man show begins previews tonight at the Golden Theater next door. The kosher-salted crowd pleaser at the Royale is an 89-year-old furniture dealer, played by Bob Dishy, who is also the moral conscience in a drama by the morally conscientious Arthur Miller.
You heard right. While it's true that Mr. Miller isn't generally a fellow you could imagine at a Friars' roast with Henny Youngman and Alan King, Mr. Dishy isn't pulling laughs out of the air in the seriously imbalanced revival of ''The Price'' that opened last night under James Naughton's direction. This 1968 play of self-delusion and fraternal conflict finds the author of ''Death of a Salesman'' and ''The Crucible'' dropping the schoolteacher's ruler and loosening up a bit.
This may be why the audience at the Royale, so accustomed to somber admonitions from Mr. Miller, sounds like a laugh track for much of the evening's first act; it is, at least partly, the laughter of relief. When Mr. Dishy's character makes a reference to the suicide of his young daughter, however, you can sense a ripple of confusion in the house. And when ''The Price'' settles into its earnest battle of wills about the ownership of one family's past, literally and metaphorically, there is the unmistakable sound of gears being stripped.
Don't blame the playwright. As written, this atypical and undervalued work plays shrewdly with both humor and pathos in its account of two estranged middle-aged brothers (here portrayed by Jeffrey DeMunn and Harris Yulin) reunited by the sale of their long-dead father's furniture. ''The Price'' also shows a fluid command of imagery starting with its reverberant title, and it is refreshing in its refusal to come down firmly on the side of either of the embattled siblings. It has a vital ambiguity, unusual in Mr. Miller's work.
The form of the play, however, is definitely on the stiff side, finally turning into a back-and-forth exchange of revelations and recriminations that inspired the critic Walter Kerr to observe deliciously, when ''The Price'' opened 31 years ago, that the evening relied on equivalents of ''the Erle Stanley Gardner line 'All right, I'll tell you what happened.' ''
For ''The Price'' to convince in performance, it has to create a sense of people picking at old wounds with the horrible exactitude peculiar to members of the same family. More than most plays, even more than most of Mr. Miller's plays, it demands an organic emotional flow to avoid seeming like a formal debate. And this production has the misfortune to follow immediately Robert Falls's intensely felt, vividly reconceived interpretation of ''Salesman.''
Neither spontaneity nor a revivifying new perspective is a hallmark of this ''Price,'' first seen at the Williamstown Theater Festival in August. Mr. Naughton, best known as a sterling actor in musicals (''City of Angels,'' ''Chicago''), has encouraged a spirit of individualism in his four performers that keeps cohesion at bay.
Mr. Yulin, who doesn't show up until the end of the first act, is excellent, giving judiciously considered weight to Mr. Miller's intriguing notion of bad faith, in which personality is made of calcified layers of self-deceptions. And Mr. DeMunn, whose squared shoulders bespeak a long-nurtured defensiveness, can be very affecting, never more so than when he is still and silent.
But you simply don't believe that these men are brothers, with a bottomless capacity to wound each other. And without that visceral connection, ''The Price'' starts to seemed fueled by hot air.
Mr. Miller's basic conceit is ingeniously simple, trading in the regressive bad behavior that arises within families when an estate has to be settled. The burden of a shared past takes on physical weight in the form of the heavy Edwardian furniture that crowds the top floor of a New York town house (designed by Michael Brown, with a surrealist slant more appropriate to Ionesco's ''Chairs'') that is soon to be destroyed.
It is here that the once wealthy father of Victor (Mr. DeMunn) and Walter Franz (Mr. Yulin) lived passively after his financial destruction in the crash of 1929. Victor, who stayed on to take care of the old man, sacrificing his passion for science, is a policeman on the edge of retirement; Walter effectively divorced himself from his family to become a successful surgeon.
Victor is accompanied by his long-suffering wife, Esther (Lizbeth Mackay), who sniffs a chance for material comfort after years of scrimping. The evening's assessor, in more ways than one, is the resonantly named Gregory Solomon (Mr. Dishy), who arrives swathed in Yiddish folksiness and the wisdom of the ages. It is he who will deliver the evening's baldest statements of theme. ''The price of used furniture is nothing but a viewpoint,'' he says. ''If you don't understand the viewpoint, you don't understand the price.''
Mr. Dishy's adorably conniving performance wins over the audience early, yet the suspicion arises that what the actor is delivering is not so much characterization as impersonation. While this might seem appropriate to a play about how people become the masks they adopt, Solomon is in fact the one character meant to be taken at face value, someone Mr. Miller has described as ''yards ahead'' of the others in his realistic acceptance of life.
Mr. Dishy suggests a posturing manipulator whose lapses into physical weakness seem less like mortal intimations than sympathy-grabbing stratagems. The interpretive choices have clearly been made in the name of theatrical liveliness, but they are ultimately miscalculations.
Ms. Mackay is simply miscast as Esther, who here seems as fluttery as a butterfly in a high wind, when what's needed is a ball and chain type forged in guilt and affection. Mr. Yulin, on the other hand, seems to have been destined to play Walter. The actor's natural self-important stateliness works beautifully, and you're always aware of the friction between the smooth surface and the roughness of angry confusion beneath.
When Mr. DeMunn is simply listening, arms folded into an insulating shield, he is an ideal Victor. But in the heat of conversation he falls into grating patterns of inflections and gestures that crop up with the rhythmic regularity of ballroom dance steps.
Nonetheless it is he who provides the evening with its most eloquent moment, which occurs in the show's first minutes. Walking across the cluttered stage with both willed deliberation and uneasy wonder, he pauses to pick up a fencing foil, a relic of Victor's youth.
Mr. DeMunn's face remains the same emblem of resignation and disappointment, but his body reflexively assumes a posture of elegance and verve. The contrast says everything about a man who has never come to terms with the past that has made him what he is. That nothing else in the production quite matches this exquisite preface makes its own comment on missed opportunities.