Two brothers at extreme odds, a grandfatherly figure nearly as old as grandma Moses, and the judgment of antique worldly possessions for better or worse: Stories don’t get much more Biblically proportioned than that! But this is exactly what the Mark Taper Forum has chosen to take on in its latest production of The Price by Arthur Miller.
Set in an old attic in the middle of New York City (the most harrowing location in the universe at the time of the tale’s unfoldment) in the Mid-1960s, our story examines the lives of an emergent middle-aged couple Esther and Victor Franz (almost 50) played respectively by a tenacious Kate Burton and an earnest Sam Robards. Victor, a New York City police officer, could have been a scientist or a doctor but feels he was denied that opportunity via his father who claims to have lost everything beyond repair originating in the crash of ’29, along with his older brother Walter who made it to medical school long before his younger brother.
Sixteen years since the death of his father, the building in which he resided is on the brink demolition, hence the sale of Father Franz’ old furniture, the significance of which prompts Esther and Victor to contemplate a sunnier existence. “You know what the goddamned trouble is? We can never seem to keep our minds on money. We talk about it, we worry about it, but we can’t seem to want it…We never were anything. We were always about to be…” according to Esther.
Victor will relentlessly question his financial choices and obligations up to the present point, as he toys with the idea, fueled most passionately by Esther, of beginning a new life and career. He will, however, continually revisit the grounding and deflating fact that he is almost fifty and balk at the notion for any sort of change.
Enter the deliciously eccentric and elderly appraiser Gregory Solomon, portrayed by a most sprightly and endearing Alan Mandell, who seems more interested in passing the time in idle conversation rather than giving Mr. Franz a price. “Why are you in such a hurry? We’ll talk a little and see what happens… I’m registered, I’m vaccinated, I’m even licensed,” Solomon will declare, all the while going on to explain, “Pricing of antique furniture has a viewpoint. If you don’t understand the viewpoint, you understand nothing.” This all in pointed counterpoint to Franz whose only interest lies in the bottom line, a struggle most entertaining to behold as Mister Solomon’s life story unfolds intermittently throughout the course of their talkative tussle. “I’m 89. It’s such an accomplishment… I smoked all my life, drank and I loved every woman who would let me,” he will admit but not before disclosing that he was one with the acrobatic troop Gallagher and Shields, “I was the one on the bottom,” hence dearth of any sort of claim to fame in the form of “The Flying Solomons” Franz imagines could have been his act if he had only further applied himself.
At the denouement of Act I, Walter Franz, Victor’s older brother, arrives played by the booming and most resonant-voiced, John Bedford Lloyd. It has been 28 years since the death of their father and 16 years since they last spoke, to the tune of all too many unreturned phone calls, a decidedly depressed livelihood on Victor’s behalf, and alleged personal dramas in the life of the good(?) doctor.
The second act is spent hashing out every conceivable misunderstanding and/or perpetuating any and all manipulation betwixt the brothers, (it is not always certain which) and if any pins were left idle in the remotest of hemlines, the audience, in all their steel-lined concentration would most certainly flinch at gravity’s power should any one of them lose its respective battle with said force. “You wanted a real life and that’s expensive,” the doctor will declare of his brother’s heretofore assumed detachment from the rat race.
A set price will also be revealed by Solomon much to the chagrin of Victor and the attempted reparation of Walter as the elder brother reveals a plan which might benefit them both but at what cost? From here on out, 28 years of fraternal tension are unraveled and any and all anger is expressed in simultaneous vain and purpose
So emblematic of Arthur Miller, the American dream is put bluntly under a microscope for all the world to see, warts and all, in a way that is most timely, yet timeless. Program notes under a paragraph entitled, “Interrogating the American Dream” will captivatingly go on to affirm; “Born in 1915 to an affluent family in Manhattan, Miller’s circumstances shifted with the stock market crash of 1929. Miller’s father, after losing his clothing business, moved his family to Brooklyn, where the future playwright took several odd jobs to save up for college. Defined by loss and the effects of the Great Depression, this period in Miller’s life influenced his best plays.” And quite a grand play it is as it so relevantly contemplates living one’s life vs. infiltrating oneself into the ‘rat race’ yet ‘making your own life’ in the most establishment vs. anti-establishment of fashions.
Though materialistically reflective, there is also something ghostly and conceivably celestial about the piece as the character of Solomon seems almost ethereally above all, including his age. As he ascends the stairs to the attic it will be announced, “Another couple of steps, you’ll be in Heaven!” Victor’s mother’s antique harp which anchors the set downstage left of center is also the “soul of the deal” Solomon will declare towards the end of the narrative.
All in all, a most arresting, tempered, and grand production; from the adept acting, to the dexterous direction by Garry Hynes, to the stirring sound effects by Cricket S. Myers, to the stunning set design by Matt Saunders, this is a unequivocal production to be reckoned with! Though all actors were glorious to behold, Alan Mandell as Gregory Solomon held a special place in my heart as nearly his every intonation and gesture moved me in the most giddy, plaintive, and endeared of ways. From the rhythm of his decidedly distinctive walk to the cadence of his speech, one might not even know he was acting at certain points, yet he remained still a most eccentric and arresting character, “real world” or otherwise, to regard.
Of equal note: The set itself. Piled high with the most hale and sturdiest of furniture; the farthest thing from any present day Ikeaized furnishings to which the modernized lot of us has become accustomed. The heights to which it reached relative to the theatre’s ceiling, were so grandiose it was nearly reminiscent of a fortress of furnishings fit for the most furrowing and factual of (non) fairy tales.
The Price runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 22.
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