The Broadway season is dead! Long live the Broadway season!
The 1992/93 season, which officially started on June 1, really got under way last night at the Criterion Center, when the Roundabout Theater opened its second stint in its new Broadway home with a glistening bright production of Arthur Miller's "The Price." The new season could scarcely have hoped for a more champagne-style launching.
"The Price" is - at least in my book - lesser Miller. But lesser Miller - at least in my book - is more than greater almost anyone else, so the play, now 24 years old, seems to be settling down nicely into the "minor classic" category, and should maintain a respectable place in the American repertory.
Although it looks back on the past - touching on the Depression, admittedly without the scope and insight of Miller's later "The American Clock" - it is not so much a memory play as a discovery play. The time is 1968. Two estranged brothers, who haven't been in contact for years, come together in the attic apartment of the brownstone where they both grew up.
One of the brothers, a New York City cop on point of retirement, has arranged for an antique dealer to come up to assess and bid on the old furniture stacked in this attic since the death, years earlier, of their father.
Now the building is being torn down, and the furniture must be disposed of. The cop asks his elder brother - a famous surgeon - to come by, and help dispose of their last joint property and memories.
The cop, Victor (Hector Elizondo), is a man embittered by mediocrity - he once had ambitions to be a scientist but gave up his college career to take care of his father crushed by the 1929 Wall Street crash. The surgeon, Walter (Joe Spano) decided to pursue college "come hell or high water," and later, already a successful man, he turned down Victor's modest request for $500 to go back to school. Hence the estrangement.
Life has worn on. The father died. The cop mildly prospered - at least he's now a sergeant - and the surgeon, for all his nursing homes and Cadillacs, now has a divorce and has only just recovered from a three-year nervous breakdown.
So this afternoon amid the dusty debris of the past, intermittenly interrupted by Victor's wife, Esther (Debra Mooney), a disappointed woman on the gloomy edge of alcoholism and by Gregory Solomon (Eli Wallach), the 89-year-old wheezer-dealer, whose name was pulled by Victor from a telephone directory ("you must have looked in a very old phone book," he tells his benefactor) and is now around to offer to buy the remnants of a lifetime.
Nothing happens. Like Ibsen - the model that Miller so often brings to mind - the present is dictated by the past, and even the future seems sealed, blocked off even to negotiation. As Miller himself points out in a production note to the play's published edition: "Actually, each has merely proved to the other what the other has known but dared not face."
Superficially, the cop seems morally superior (if less smart) than the physician, yet this is not altogether the playwright's intention. He puts it: "As the world now operates, the qualities of both brothers are necessary to it; surely their respective psychologies and moral values conflict at the heart of the social dilemma."
So the layers of past are unraveled, accusations made, and recriminations leveled - do the brothers, or even the disheartened wife, learn anything to their advantage? And at the end, only the old dealer is left laughing mechanically, while the heavyweight plot is so crowded with unlikelihoods that disbelief must be placed on permanent suspension.
Yet the play has power - particularly in this staging by John Tillinger which is markedly superior to both the original production in 1968 and the last major New York revival in 1979. The reason is partly the even-handedness of Tillinger's direction, backed up by John Lee Beatty's gewgaw-encrusted setting, itself seemingly a homage to Boris Aronson's shabby original, and partly through the performances.
No one could go quite wrong with the junk-meister Solomon, a role designed for and eventually memorably played by the great David Burns, but no one is going to go more right than Wallach, who is sensationally good and daring, looking and sounding outrageously like Sol Hurok in his later years, and charming the audience as easily if he were a hypnotist, which perhaps he is.
Elizondo, joyously up to every trick in Wallach's book, underplays their scenes together with unflustered mastery, and gives a compelling performance of brute morality. Another masterly portrayal comes from Debra Mooney as the cop's shopworn wife, and although Joe Spano, in a neatish study of uncertain arrogance, is not quite up to the sustained brilliance of the other three, quite obviously this "Price" is finally right.
Old debts are paid in "The Price," the Arthur Miller play given a scrupulous revival by John Tillinger at the Roundabout Theater Company. In this perceptive study of possessiveness and rivalry within family relationships, an estate is settled, legacies are established and antipathetic brothers try to find a common ground. But behind everything is an aura of disunion. "The Price" is a play of recognizable human dimensions and a definite change of pace for the playwright. It is also an irresolute work, despite the series of revelations that come just before the conclusion.
In the play, the author created one of his most colorful and comic characters, Gregory Solomon, the octogenarian furniture dealer who is as judicious as his biblical name suggests, yet is wily to the core. He has come to buy the Franz family inheritance. That estate is jointly held by two brothers, one a policeman (Hector Elizondo), the other a surgeon (Joe Spano). With his crackling humor, Solomon (Eli Wallach in a flamboyant mode) runs away with the first act, then all but disappears, to be replaced by a fraternal colloquy about success and failure and family loyalty.
Mr. Wallach delights in the theatricality of Solomon, a role that can support histrionics. As he did in "Cafe Crown," he wears his stagecraft like a comfortable overcoat: the shrug, the quizzical pause and the rhetorical question that cuts to the quick. Despite his age, he is eager to return to business, especially if it means having an entire house of furniture. Mr. Wallach delivers a very physical portrait, often teetering at a humorous tilt, looking as if he might fall.
Led to an offstage bedroom to collect his thoughts and consider a price, Solomon is missing but not forgotten. The fact that he occasionally wanders back onstage merely stimulates our wish to have him figure more prominently in the central drama of the play.
"The Price" is bifurcated, a shrewd first act and a less satisfying follow-through. Mr. Tillinger has concealed the flaws by presenting a careful, measured production. With the help of his actors, he keeps each character as close to reality as possible, playing down the author's penchant for underlining philosophical points. Nothing is overdramatized. The director proves that he is as adept with Mr. Miller as he has been with such disparate playwrights as Joe Orton and A. R. Gurney Jr.
What gives the revival additional equilibrium is the performance of Mr. Elizondo as the policeman, the less fortunate of the brothers. He served as caretaker of his father after the older man became bankrupt during the Depression. Wandering among the family heirlooms and artifacts, the actor seems to startle himself with memories of his childhood and his abandonment of his own plans for a career in science.
The fact that Mr. Elizondo is playing a good cop only deepens the character's malaise. Approaching 50, he is frightened, with nothing to show for his life except his survivability. Mr. Elizondo uncovers the lingering dignity and the resilience that have carried the policeman through his disappointments.
A number of years ago the actor was memorable as the truck driver in "The Rose Tattoo" (at the Berkshire Theater Festival), as was Mr. Wallach when he created the same role in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's play, and there is something heartening about seeing two former Mangiacavallos parry in "The Price." It is an equal contest.
In contrast to Mr. Wallach, who remains a dreamer, Mr. Elizondo is the pragmatist, repeatedly wanting to conclude the deal and close the family album. As his wife, Debra Mooney is a constant spur. Although Mr. Miller has given Ms. Mooney platitudes to speak, she keeps the character from becoming abrasive and goes a distance in gaining the audience's sympathy.
Mr. Spano, who served many years on the police force in "Hill Street Blues," is effective as a member of the medical profession. As the surgeon, he is stalwart in his assertiveness, his ability to take charge of a situation, missing only the arrogance of a man who considers himself able to control the lives of others.
The set designer, John Lee Beatty, has filled the Roundabout stage with authentic duplications of furniture the Franz family would have collected, large, heavy pieces made to last a lifetime. As Mr. Wallach wryly observes, "With this kind of furniture the shopping is over." Given the opportunity, wise old Solomon might have been able to show the brothers the price of their self-limitations and of their mutual disaffection.
With "The Price," the Roundabout has come up with the most consistent and rewarding production of its first Broadway season, a well cast and thoughtfully staged revival of Arthur Miller's stirring 1968 drama.
This is a play haunted, and driven, by ghosts--of a proud family patriarch ruined and then broken by the Great Depression, and of a suicidal daughter who has lately returned to her aged father's dreams.
The first act is given over to a New York City policeman and his wife, who have come to sell the contents of his father's long-abandoned attic apartment, and the ancient dealer they hope will gladden the cop's impending retirement with a good price for the furnishings.
The second act is an inevitable showdown between the cop and his successful brother, who have been estranged for 16 years; now the price being negotiated is not monetary but emotional, as the brothers strip away one another's illusions about the past that have led them to such very different fates.
"We invent ourselves, Vic," the doctor says to his brother, "to wipe out what we know."
As the cop who sacrificed a promising career in science to support a father who may not have needed it, Hector Elizondo starts off a bit stolid and martial. But he eases into the role, and he's completely up to the big scene.
His wife, who has submerged too much of her anger and ambition in the bottle, is played with a raspy sureness by Debra Mooney. The doctor, who refused to succumb to the father's manipulations, is played with an on-edge brittleness by Joe Spano.
The philosophizing dealer is essentially a comic role in a play that would otherwise sink in its own despair. But Gregory Solomon also has his touching moments, whether recounting the dreams that have recently been invaded by his long-dead daughter, or being sent into a brief reverie by a Gallagher & Shean routine captured on an old 78 r.p.m. recording.
The memory of Joseph Buloff's unforgettable performance as Solomon in a 1979 revival remains undiminished. But Eli Wallach plays the character with an adroit mixture of impishness, congeniality and pathos.
But indeed that balance is felt throughout John Tillinger's production and if the emotional lid seems to have been kept on the action, there's enough going on beneath the surface to make the performances satisfying.
John Lee Beatty has designed one of his patented ultra-real settings, a musty apartment despite the skylight, and it is aptly lit by Dennis Parichy. Jane Greenwood's costumes are also fine.