NOVEMBER 2019 | Volume 185
Photo by Nancy Caldwell
Arthur Miller’s The Price, first produced in 1968, revisits themes and ideas central to the plays that made his reputation in the 1940s, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. It’s a play about family, brothers, dreams, values and self-delusion. In some ways it’s Biff and Happy redux.
Adam Henderson’s United Players production lays out the terms of the argument against the backdrop of R. Todd Parker’s voluminous set, a New York City attic apartment filled with a lifetime’s worth of things, but it’s not always clear where the argument is taking us.
The apartment is where police officer Victor (Patrick Bahrich) and his surgeon brother Walter (Rob Monk) grew up, and where their father died. With the building about to be demolished, Vic has decided to sell the contents to a second-hand furniture appraiser, Mr. Solomon (Sjahari Hollands).
In the first act Vic and wife Esther (Christine Iannetta) squabble about money—she wants it, regrets that they’ve never had enough because of his job—then Vic and Solomon negotiate a price for the goods. Theirs is as much a philosophical discussion as an economic one. Solomon goes on about “disposable” modern society and why he continues to work at age 89. Vic complains of the emptiness: “It’s three feeds a day, make a kid for the army, you lose your hair, then it’s over. It’s hard to find a point in it all.”
Part of their difficulty in making a deal is that the place is co-owned by Vic and Walter, who haven’t spoken in 16 years, so Vic has decided to go it alone. Esther thinks he should keep all the proceeds. Vic thinks he should share them with Walter. At the end of the act Walter makes a surprise entrance.
The second act finds the brothers arguing over the past with Esther and Solomon on the sidelines offering commentary. We learn why the brothers are estranged—it has to do with their father’s dying. We hear accusations of betrayal, confessions of failure, awkward attempts at reconciliation, and the necessity—and impossibility—of putting a price on things that accounts for their real value.
Typically for Miller, the wife is mostly sidelined. Esther is no Linda Loman but she’s not demonized either. The play devalues her materialism but she stands by her man in the end. Iannetta does a pretty good job with a pretty thankless part.
Vic is certainly the play’s locus of value. A thoughtful, ethical, sturdy, hardworking guy, he could have/should have been a scientist or an engineer but sacrificed his education to care for his dying father. Bahrich is excellent at embodying the frustrations and confusions of a man not immune to the Millerian disease of bending and hiding the truth of the past, even to himself.
Monk’s Walter is a more problematic character and performance. He’s the selfish brother who has seen the error of his ways and wants to make amends. But has he? And does he really? The ambiguity in Walter’s self-presentation is clouded by the lack of clarity in Monk’s choices. Is Walter reformed, manipulative, vindictive, lying? Is it the character we’re seeing or the acting?
And Solomon … It’s hard to know what to make of a character whose name carries so much weight. He’s eccentric and frustrating. But does he appraise the situation with the wisdom of his namesake or does he just talk the values game and in the end merely assign monetary value? Hollands captures some of Solomon’s amusing eccentricity but his ultimate role in this family drama remains unclear.Part of my frustration with this often fascinating play derives from Miller’s strategy of making a dead offstage character the crux of the drama. (See my review of Kuroko for similar frustration with another playwright’s similar strategy.) The boys’ father looms so large in the sons’ lives but he’s just an empty cipher to us, literally an empty chair centre stage.
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