Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Familiar Divide

By Michael Block 

Blood is thick. Family is forever. Cliches are real. And they're the center of Arthur Miller's The Price. Receiving a starry revival at Roundabout Theatre Company, this production honors Miller's text readily, proving this antique will never go out of fashion.
With a singular set comprised of an attic filled with furniture in a soon-to-be demolished building, The Price follows Victor Franz as he brings an eccentric furniture dealer in to sell his parents' estate. But this sale is not so easy. While Victor has hopes of selling quickly, he soon comes to grips with the past. His brother, Walter, unexpectedly returns and opens up a dialogue about sacrifice and mutual resentment centered around the manipulative patriarch of the family. But the truths from the past only seem to be convenient in the present. The Price is a play that talks in circles with a purpose. It's a captivating character study, which heightens the familiar relationships that Arthur Miller is known for. Directed by Terry Kinney, The Price has a resounding relevance. Kinney keeps the play in period, yet sprinkles hints of a modern sensibility. The Price is an emotionally gripping play, especially felt in the second act, but when you have Danny DeVito, a profound sense of humor is inherently infused. By grounding the Franz family in deep desolation, Kinney easily allowed Solomon to break up the tension with hilarity. The heaviness of the situation in turns feels even more raw. DeVito as Solomon chewed the scenery, metaphorically speaking, as he gnawed on his hard-boiled egg, spewing bits as he spoke. As the laughs cascaded, the tone shifted, yet the sincerity remained. Even in our darkest moments, we can laugh at the little things. Kinney helped find those gems to ensure that this play would feel emotionally taxing for character and audience alike. Miller wrote this play with four characters, but the presence of the father is especially felt. And Kinney ensured he was there by exploring the power of his chair. It began subtly, but by the end, the acknowledgment was profound. The play ends with Solomon in the chair laughing, mirroring what the father was likely doing internally. It's these key moments that defined how in tune Kinney was with Miller's narrative.
photo by Joan Marcus
Rather than stripping the piece down, Kinney and his team went big. Perhaps a little too big. It was all in the atmosphere. The attic of the building was an antique hoarder's dream. Designed by Derek McLane, an array of furniture filled the stage: cupboards and cabinets and chairs hung from the ceiling. Without walls, McLane didn't give us skyline, but instead opted for water tanks on the building tops against a cloud-lined sky. With the exposed sky, we were gifted a passage of time from day to night. Lighting designer David Weiner's passage wasn't sweeping, but barely noticeable to the unobservant eye. It begged to be a bit grander. With the sunset being the most theatrical element in the piece, Weiner could have afforded to do more. When it comes to attire, costume designer Sarah J. Holden played with status. This night was Victor and Esther's night out, so Esther was dressed to the nines, given her aspirations. Victor's police attire was lived in to say the least. Solomon's three-piece suit was brazen. When it came to Walter, the way his suit shined matched his persona to a T.
No doubt about it, this was an immensely talented company. As Victor, Mark Ruffalo gave an admirable performance. Ruffalo's take on the venerable man of honor and pride who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, wavered when it came to morals, and finally found the moment to break out of his despair. This play found one brother plagued with betrayal and another by guilt. The latter, played with ease by Tony Shalhoub, may have been a doctor by profession, but he may be Miller's best salesman. Walter found himself in a position where he had no contemporaneous party to corroborate his story, so discerning when he was telling the truth was the name of the game. And Shalhoub made you believe every word he sold. Jessica Hecht's tenacity as the faithful wife was delectable. Even when she was told to leave it to the boys, she put up a glorious fight. Her power had no bounds. How do make you Arthur Miller funny? Cast Danny DeVito. DeVito is naturally hilarious. And even in his absurdity, his Solomon was tangible. This production will be remembered for DeVito’s pristine performance.
When you lie so much to yourself, you almost believe it; and perhaps that's the biggest take away from The Price. The revival was steeped in naturalism and rarely strayed. It may not have been the most remarkable piece of theater, but it was riveting.