Has Arthur Miller’s time come and gone? Sometimes I think so. I couldn’t agree more with New Yorker reviewer Giles Harvey’s assessment of Death of a Salesman as “a heartbreaking work of staggering mediocrity” (and that was in response to a staging directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman). But a couple of years ago I saw A View from the Bridge and thought: Well, maybe he still has something for us.
The Price, though, has my pendulum swinging back in the other direction, if for no other reason than for how dated the writing feels. It’s not simply that this story of estranged brothers finally confronting their collective history takes place in a bygone era, it’s that Miller himself seems straitened by the stiffest of dramatic conventions. Combined with International City Theatre’s traditionalist delivery, despite being written and set in 1968, The Price feels like a relic from the World War II era.
Victor (David Nevell) and his wife Esther (Elyse) have come to his deceased father’s home finally to sell off the family estate. After 16 years estrangement, his older brother Walter (Bo Foxworth) shows up, and, in the process of bargaining with an old furniture dealer (Gregory Solomon), they review their mutually unsatisfying lives, wrestling with recriminations and resentments buried but unforgotten.
If that sounds static and talky, well, it is. The entire play takes place in one room, with Miller slowly walking his characters from revelation to revelation, building toward a climax that isn’t a bit surprising and peppering us with heavy-handed metaphors. “When it comes to used furniture,” the dealer says multiple times, “you can’t be emotional.” See, he’s talking about more than just old furniture. And the price isn’t just about what money they’ll get for the estate, you know?
That’s Miller all over. He never met a nail he didn’t keep hammering even after it was deeply embedded in the board. If he weren’t so sententious, if there were just a little subtlety, all this would go down a lot better, because it’s not like The Price is without substance. Far from it. But it’s so full of itself on that score that it’s difficult to see people onstage rather than merely Miller’s mouthpieces.
This is where director John Henry Davis and his cast might have helped Miller along. Played with the roughness of real conversation, they might have diverted our attention from the artificiality of the dialog. Instead, they highlight it with canned New York accents (Foxworth is the exception) and never letting the feel of real conversation mix into their line readings.
But you can’t fault the cast for their preparation. The Price is a long play, with each character responsible for a good bit of speechifying, and all of the actors know their stuff backwards and forwards. If you like this acting style, they’re rather good, but to me they seem too well rehearsed. I’d love to have a scene where something goes off the rails, because forcing them to react to the unexpected might have injected the show with a bit more life. Not that they lack energy. The play’s arc is premised on the smoldering resentment between the brothers being kindled into an inferno, and Nevell and Foxworth are equal to the task.
There is no American playwright more celebrated than Arthur Miller. But our enjoyment of art has nothing to do with any supposedly objective measure of how good it is. One of the biggest laughs at the performance I saw (this isn’t a funny play, but there’s a bit of humor) was in response to Victor’s complaint about how expensive movie tickets have gotten. See, he paid $2.50, which is a lot less than we pay today, and this fact had a good part of the house howling. It was not a funny line, not intended to be funny, not acted as if it were funny, but a lot of people love what is familiar to them.
This may be the appeal of The Price. It’s is a head-on take on a barrel of issues that will be familiar to mostfestering family wounds, coming to terms with the past, midlife discontent, wistfulness about the road not taken. It’s too on-the-nose for me, but no-one is in danger of missing the point. And with International City Theatre delivering Miller’s message with the most familiar of theatrical styles, you won’t be challenged by this show and maybe that’s the way you like it.