From the moment he climbs onstage, cane in hand, specs at tip of nose, a snowy mustache and goatee encircling his mouth, and looking jauntily proper in three-piece pinstripe suit, Danny DeVito has us in the palm of his hands. Huffing as if this breath might well be his last, he surveys the scene, making small talk with the suspicious couple who have asked him here. Producing a notebook and pencil, he begins jotting down figures. That harp in the corner? Beautiful gilding but the sounding board’s cracked. Don’t worry, it’s a nice piece. That formal oak dining table. Seats 12, 14 in a pinch? Gorgeous, they don’t make ’em like they used to – and no wonder: they’d never fit through a modern doorway. And who entertains like that anymore?
Has there ever been a better gift to scenery-chewing actors than The Price? This is, after all, a play so chock full of delectable scenery that half of it is hanging from the ceiling. No wonder Arthur Miller’s 1968 breast-beater is irresistible to actors of a show-boating bent and the theatergoers who worship them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but The Price is, at best, a master’s second-tier work – Miller lite. Many of its qualities and all its flaws are thrown into relief in Terry Kinney’s damask-heavy revival, which opened Thursday night at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre in a Roundabout production starring DeVito, Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht.
We’re in the overstuffed attic (Derek McLane did the sneeze-inducing set) of a New York brownstone slated for demolition. NYPD sergeant Victor Franz (Ruffalo, a last-minute replacement for John Turturro) and his wife Esther (Hecht) found Gregory Solomon’s name in the phone book. He’s a furniture appraiser on the cusp of 90; semi-decommissioned (“You must have looked in a very old phone book,” he tells them) but curious about this trove of goods. Victor has invited his brother Walter (Shalhoub) but doesn’t expect him to show; they’ve been estranged for 16 years, the length of time between their widowed father’s death and the building sale that has forced them to sell the family goods.
There’s even more baggage than furniture in this equally overstuffed drama. Esther resents the working-class life they’ve led (“Why must everybody know your salary?” she wonders when they go out to a movie and he’s in uniform), especially in the shadow of Walter, a big-shot doctor who wears silk suits and promotes an air of condescension. Victor gave up college and his dream of pursuing science to care for their father, ruined in the Depression. Walter has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown that apparently cost him three years of his life without anyone in the family noticing. And was Dad a broken man, defeated by the false promise of capitalism? Or was he a mean, penurious bastard who saw Victor’s weakness and exploited it while they ate from garbage bins. And whatever happened to the $4,000 he had Walter secret away?
Before the evening is out (Miller wrote it as a single long act; Kinney has provided an intermission) Victor and Walter will thrash out all these issues, tearing at one another and then embracing and then lashing out again in a game of emotional Wack-A-Mole that just won’t let up. The monologues are fierce and touch on familiar Miller themes – especially the intertwining of familial and social betrayals he saw as the consequence of the unforgiving American Dream of success.
Kinney, a director who typically epitomizes the rough-and-tumble style of his home base, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, is hamstrung here. He’s unable to establish a coherent ensemble out of these four spectacular actors, each of whom seems to be performing in a different production. Ruffalo, hoarse and mumbly, is in the Brando/Method slot. DeVito sauntered in from vaudeville, and Shalhoub simply seems too fuzzy-edged to have led Walter’s life (though admittedly, Walter is the least credible of the four characters). They are all entertaining in their own worlds, but only Hecht brings the touch of believability; almost girlishly flirty in the near-chic ensemble she’s just splurged $45 precious dollars on (the costumes are by Sarah J. Holden), and a little heart-breaking.
David Weiner has provided the right lighting for a show that’s as musty as the setting itself. And for long stretches, it’s possible to appreciate the expertise of each individual performance, but it may not be long before you begin to feel the walls of that attic closing in on you.