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by Margaret Croyden
"The Price" by Arthur Miller--Arthur Miller's Return
The Royale Theatre
242 West 45th Street
Opened November 15, 1999.
Reviewed November 22,1999 by Margaret Croyden
Arthur Miller's "The Price" is superb playwriting at its highest level. Not for Miller the four-letter words, the cliches and stereotypes, the nasty, infantile television soapy stories. Here is a play, written in 1968, that retains its freshness, despite its age, and is an exemplary piece of theatrical art--easily identifiable and truly moving--rare these days.
At the age of 85, Miller has been enjoying a remarkable renaissance. In an interview a few years ago, he complained (rightly so) about the American theater's neglect of his work. England, however, had been treating him well; he was awarded an Oxford honorary degree, and his play "Broken Glass" (a failure in New York) was acclaimed in London; his reputation was once again in place. The success in England ultimately lead to his revival in America, and soon New Yorkers hailed "Death of a Salesman," "View from the Bridge," a season of Miller plays at Signature Theater, and now "The Price." Waiting in the wings is an opera version of "Bridge" and the re-opening of "Ride Down Mt. Morgan." For sure, Miller can no longer complain of neglect.
Miller's plays are attracting unusually large Broadway audiences, even those who had seen the original productions. "Salesman" was a sellout throughout its run, and Miller not only won the Life Achievement award but two Tonys last season, and there is talk of reviving some of his other plays. What accounts for the enormous interest in Miller today when his body of work is more than four decades old?
Apparently the audience is still there for mature plays, for identifiable characters, for a depiction of important, relevant problems, original dialogue, and philosophical humor. Miller fits the bill. Audiences are tired of television's trite banal one- liners and silly sexual dramas, they are mesmerized by a plethora of four letter words as the chief means of communication, and of material depicting youthful solipsistic obsessions. Young playwrights seem not to have an historical memory or social perspective, nor any kind of penetrating philosophy. Violence, kinky, bizarre characters, deranged families trot around on the stages of Broadway and Off-Broadway--and whine, scream and undress. Audiences cheer a Miller play because they have been genuinely involved and genuinely moved. That's why they come to the theater. They want to feel something. Most of the American theater does not satisfy these wants. A Miller play apparently does.
In "The Price" Miller explores family dynamics, with a keen understanding of its contradictions and its powerful relationships, and the choices one makes in life. The story is about two brothers whose unexpressed resentments, bitterness, and jealousies have estranged them for sixteen years. When Vincent, a policeman and Walter, his older brother, a successful doctor, finally meet to dispose of their dead father's belongings, their intense hostility and old animosities surface. They are helped along by a furniture dealer, there to buy the old "junk." The dealer, a wise 85-year-old Jewish philosopher, is a man who sizes up any situation and adjusts to it, a man who has lived through disasters but seems indestructible, a humorous humanitarian who understands the practicalities of life in a greedy society consumed with shopping--and abides by his own principles. He provides the irony and the witticism in the play, besides being the go-between the brothers.
True to the Miller zeitgeist a social message is laced throughout the work, but the message is based not on propaganda but on historical fact: the thirties' depression--an catastrophic event that destroyed the father and the price his sons had to pay. Walter, determined to escape poverty and failure, single mindedly pursued medicine, to the neglect of wife, children, and family. Vincent, deeply affected by his father's misfortune, sacrificed his youthful talent for science to take care of him. Having forfeited his ambitions, Vincent became a cop, a man of rigid principles and a self-deceiving moralist. In the end, the brothers filled with rancor, have it out at last, but the explosion solves nothing. The choices had been made long ago; the price had to be paid. Even the memories of the past had to be abandoned and its "junk" sold for a price.
Did the brothers learn anything from their encounter? Did their relationship change? Miller is too clever an observer of life to automatically shut the pandora's box once he had opened it, and wrap everthing up in a tidy package. He gives no final answers, and he presents no heros or villains. Just an inevitable life struggle.
The performances in "The Price" are superb. The director, James Naughton has cast four experienced, mature actors in the main roles who know what genuine acting is. Playing the angry policeman, Jeffrey DeMunn is astonishing. In a repressed rage throughout the play, he is a master of control and restraint. He seems always on the verge of screaming, or of hitting someone, but he never explodes until the climax of the play when the brothers go at it ferociously in an unbelievably brilliant scene. The doctor, played by Harris Yullin, is suave, smarmy, clever, handsomely dressed in a cashmere coat and impeccable suit, but is a man whose personal life has been a disaster. Divorced, almost bankrupt and friendless, he knows he has sacrificed the most authentic part of his life for his career. At this late stage, he tries to atone for his prior selfishness, but underneath he is not sorry for his choice. Harris is perfect in the role. Neither a villain nor a hero; neither sympathetic, nor cruel, one wonders if he was justified in neglecting everything to serve medicine? Thankfully there are no pat answers.
In the role of the dealer, the incomparable Bob Dishey provides the humor; he misses no chance for a laugh; his timing is perfect. Never stereotypical, which such roles can sometimes be, his performance is in tune with his character. As an old Jew who has seen better days, he carries his food with him. When he is hungry, he eats a hard boiled egg he had carefully hidden in his brief case, or munches a chocolate bar when his blood pressure drops. He is the quintessential immigrant Jew who knows the way of the world. Nothing surprises him, nothing derails him. Before he names his price, we know his life story, his failed marriages, his daughter's suicide, his business troubles, and his uncanny wisdom in accepting the vicissitudes of life. He is not named Solomon for nothing.
Lizbeth Mackay plays Vincent's wife. Impatient, argumentative, and evidently tired of poverty, her role is the weakest of the four. But she is a strong and talented actress and makes the part her own.
There is no comparable acting on Broadway right now--no acting as strong and compelling. But best of all is the success of Arthur Miller at this point in his life. Recognized finally as one of the great American playwrights of our time, Miller needn't go to England to receive the honors he deserves. The American theater is where he belongs. And where he is truly needed. [Croyden]
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