The characters in Arthur Miller’s complex 1968 drama The Price are each concerned with the various natures of what things cost, from used furniture to much-needed vacations, not to mention the price to be paid for telling another person the truth about the past, or the cost of the sacrifice made by one family member at the expense of others. It’s one of the author’s trickier plays to pull off properly, which may lead possible audience members to ask their own salient question: Is it worth the ticket price to see The Roundabout Theatre’s latest revival?
Fortunately, my answer is a definite yes, even if the first act of director Terry Kinney’s ultimately solid-as-oak production struggles to find a consistent tone. The reason for that disconnect, however, becomes rather obvious the minute Danny DeVito (making his much-awaited Broadway debut at 71) walks onstage as Gregory Solomon, the almost 90-year-old furniture dealer who has been summoned by unhappy, soon-to-be-50 cop Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) to help appraise and buy the possibly valuable belongings (stunningly displayed by Derek McLane) of his very-long-dead parents.
Because DeVito has long been one of TV and film’s foremost comic actors, audiences are already prone to laugh at the actor’s every line reading or gesture, regardless of DeVito’s intentions. And here, DeVito lays the cute-old-guy shtick on a little thick. Gregory is supposed to be a colorful personality, but he’s also supposed to represent an age-earned wisdom and clear-eyed prospective that Victor actually (and unwittingly) lacks.
DeVito does convey those much-needed qualities, but he’s also a little too invested in making us (and Victor, whom Ruffalo imbues with almost no emotion in their scenes together) like him. As a result, his performance results in giggles, chuckles and guffaws that seem out of place in what we have already realized is another of Miller’s dysfunctional family sagas. Don’t get me wrong, DeVito practically owns the stage for about 30 minutes – I’d just love to see him an in out-and-out yukfest.
Once the second act begins with the surprise arrival of Victor’s long-estranged brother Walter (a mesmerizing, sure-footed Tony Shalhoub) – and Gregory is relegated mostly off-stage to a nearby bedroom – the production truly starts to cohere. Kinney (no stranger to dysfunctional families in his acting work) precisely mines the troubling dynamic between Victor and Walter (a prominent, recently divorced doctor), as well as the equally problematic one between Victor and his frustrated wife Esther (a pitch-perfect Jessica Hecht, stunning in the Jackie Kennedyish pink suit chosen by Sarah J. Holden). A prototypical non-working wife, she wants her husband (who is on the verge of retirement) to get as much money from the furniture – and Walter – as can possibly be wrangled.
Sadly for Esther, Victor not only wants to keep the “bargain” he’s made with Gregory, but he’s essentially indifferent to Walter, who offers confessions of marital and professional woes as well as a variety of seemingly well-intentioned peace offerings. And in feeling rejected, while also trying to justify his own venal sins, Walter displays his true colors, intending to shatter Victor’s illusions about their long-dead father in the process. In these late-in-play scenes, as Victor defends the choices he made (foolish or not), Ruffalo’s performance vividly comes to life.
As many audiences know, fathers often don’t get treated well in Miller’s work, and The Price is no exception. In fact, at various points, Victor, Walter and Gregory each reveal their own failings to their offspring, while Victor and Walter’s unseen father is shown to be simultaneously a true victim of the Depression and a heartless manipulator of his youngest child. But The Price is not designed as a blame game. Miller not only implores us to take responsibility for our own actions – as Esther constantly repeats “I can never believe what I see” – but to fully understand that whatever the past has cost us, we have to account for the present. It’s a priceless lesson.