As the play goes on, the price becomes more and more negotiable until the final curtain at which time, the audience is required to draw its own conclusions, and there are several possible outcomes. As for the playwright, he has backed out of this debate entirely, and we have only our own experiences and beliefs to guide us to resolution. We are now collaborators, and Miller has left the building, a cluttered attic that holds a lifetime of memories for the Franz brothers and during the play, becomes their battleground.
It is 1968, when Victor enters the top floor of his family’s once-fashionable brownstone in New York City, now scheduled for demolition. He’s dressed in his police uniform, so we know immediately what he does for a living. He and his father moved up to this small space, bringing all their furniture with them, when the Depression wiped out the elder Franz. Victor’s mother died shortly after, and Walter was already practicing medicine. Their uncles took over the building, so perhaps sibling discord hasn’t been confined to the current generation. Victor himself was in college studying science, but he dropped out to help his penniless and depressed parent. He became a beat cop and still is. He married Esther (Peggy Billo) and even after he had moved out, sent a sizeable chunk of his salary to support the old man. Walter, on the other hand, sent a measly $5 a month, though he could have afforded much more.
The brothers haven’t seen each other or the house in 16 years, since their father died. Victor has carried a grudge the whole time, both resenting and envying Walter. As the play opens, he is waiting for an appraiser/dealer he found in the phone book to come and buy the whole lot, including his mother’s harp, a valuable piece with sentimental value, as well. The set is a marvelous jumble of, well, everything. It’s almost distracting as the eye strays to all the interesting stuff piled on the floors, hanging on the walls, covering most of the usable space. That design (by Larry Mabrey) and its execution (by Erin Kelley) is an important element in the drama.
Esther Franz is, if anything, unhappier with her life than Victor is. She’s out of a “job” now that their son is at M.I.T., on scholarship and doing well, but she doesn’t want to work outside the home, even part time. She’s tired of living from paycheck to paycheck and wants some luxury and fun in her life. She’s wearing a new suit, and much is made of the fact that it isn’t cheap and she feels good in it. She stopped and bought movie tickets for later ($2.50, shocking to Victor). Most of all, she’s fed up with Victor. He’s been eligible for retirement from the police force for three years, but he’s too indecisive to leave. Clearly Victor fears the unknown. He always wanted to finish school and get a job where his interest in science could be used, but now that he’s pushing 50, he believes he’s too old. Esther disagrees. Victor is upset with her because he thinks she drinks too much.
Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Gregory Solomon (Bob Harvey), antique appraiser and dealer, and also 89 years old and about to collapse from the effort of climbing the stairs. He is a funny old man, something of a stereotype actually, which is not the case with the others, but he is also insightful and wise. He’s not named “Solomon” for nothing. Esther goes out and the two men begin the dance of the deal. Victor is very uncomfortable with bargaining; Mr. Solomon is a past master. When they have finally agreed on a price, the door opens and Walter (Peter Mayer) appears.
The dynamic in the room changes drastically. Walter seems to occupy a great deal of the space. He questions Mr. Solomon, doesn’t think Victor has done what’s best, and he blusters around, apparently quite full of himself. But, as time goes on, we learn that appearances are deceiving. Walter has come to an understanding of himself that Victor hasn’t yet achieved: that fear is behind both ambition and stasis, and this is an emotion the brothers share. Esther is afraid too, but for much of this piece she seems unfortunately one-dimensional; still, even she undergoes a change near the very end, played delicately and subtly by Billo.
Contini has a most expressive face, which helps us understand Victor’s feelings at any given time. Mayer, who is always excellent as voluble characters, starts out that way here, but he shows much more of his range as the evening goes on. Both do superior work, but can’t help ceding the stage to Harvey when he is onstage because he’s an inveterate scene stealer. He’s aided here by a lot of funny lines, even if they aren’t terribly surprising. He gives the play its heart, because while there is sentiment, Arthur Miller doesn’t allow his main characters to fall into the trap of sentimentality, which Solomon does from time to time.
Bobby Miller has directed this show with a deep understanding of these characters, even down to their movements. Physically, Victor keeps a distance from Walter, even though Walter keeps trying to close the gap. When he finally does, the drama is explosive. Maybe the build could be more gradual because Mayer seems at one point to have reached the peak of his character’s emotions, but then he has to back off a bit and bring it back up. That may be intentional, and if so, it’s an odd choice. Otherwise, I think The Price is an outstanding production of one of Miller’s less-frequently produced dramas, enjoyable, discomfiting, challenging—everything one hopes for in an evening of theatre.
The Price runs through Feb. 13. You may call 314-351-6482 or visit www.avalontheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT
BY: COLIN MURPHY – SENIOR WRITER