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Review: 'The Price' at the Old Globe

May 17, 2009 |  4:13 pm

The price1 

Reporting from San Diego—Nothing too action-packed occurs in Arthur Miller’s 1968 drama “The Price,” but the piece is absorbing in a way that hooks an audience from start to finish. Less fluidly ambitious than “Death of a Salesman” and not as steadily driving as “All My Sons,” the play is arguably more psychologically ensnaring than its similarly family-oriented forebears, written roughly two decades earlier.

As the Old Globe’s timely revival of “The Price” makes clear, the difference between this play and Miller’s earlier masterworks is one of dramatic scale rather than intensity: Instead of a slow-ticking bomb that eventually takes out an entire block, think of a short-fuse firecracker that blows out all the upstairs windows of a house.

In the role of Gregory Solomon, the nearly 90-year-old furniture dealer with the Russian-Yiddish accent and plain-spoken wisdom, Dominic Chianese (best known as Uncle Junior from the “The Sopranos”) is the standout in director Richard Seer’s faithful revival, which is notable mostly for the intimacy of the staging. Performed in the round as part of the Old Globe’s “Classics Up Close” series, the production invites us to eavesdrop on a long-repressed domestic dispute that’s about to finally have a full and fearsome reckoning.

Set in the furniture-crammed attic of a once-grand Manhattan brownstone, the play revolves around the remnants of an estate that Victor (Andy Prosky) and Walter (James Sutorius), two brothers estranged for 16 years, must finally sort through. The building housing their late father’s antiques is being torn down and the vestiges of his former wealth, lost in the stock market crash of 1929 and never recovered, must be at long last disposed of.

The conflict, elaborated in Miller’s customary flat-footed exposition, is that Victor, a policeman who sacrificed his education for his ruined father, feels that Walter, a successful surgeon, left him to shoulder all the filial responsibility. While Walter pursued his medical studies, Victor forfeited his dream of becoming a scientist to support his Depression-ravaged household.

Esther (Leisa Mather), Victor’s bright yet thwarted wife, wants her husband to use the money from the furniture to change his life. A drinker who has stopped writing poetry but still tries to keep up appearances, she’s bothered by the unimpressive sight of Victor in his uniform and hopes he won’t let being middle-aged stop him from having the career he should have had years ago.

The title tips off Miller’s thematic game, which can be summed up by alternative definitions of the word “price”: value and cost — what is something genuinely worth and how much are you willing to give up for it. Solomon, as he’s biblically referred to by the brothers, keeps urging Victor to consider the monetary value of the furniture objectively (things are never worth what you hope for). But the weight of the past complicates the transaction when Walter tries to help Victor get a better deal. At stake are not just Victor’s history and might-have-been future but also his integrity and ability to be straight with himself.

Solomon’s Old World voice, captured with New York melting pot brio by Chianese, enlivens the play, which could seem claustrophobic without the character’s long-view perspective. Shuffling about the set — designed by Robin Sanford Roberts to resemble both a showroom and, with chairs and other items dangling from the ceiling, a child’s mobile — Solomon speaks as much with his haggling hands as his munching mouth. Practical to a fault, he interrupts his negotiation with Victor to peel a hard-boiled egg, depositing the bits of shell back in his briefcase. Chianese gives us a man who understands that the only thing to do in the face of swelling regret and ever-encroaching death is to proceed more defiantly with life.

Equally vital to the drama’s effectiveness is the way Miller subverts melodramatic expectation by revealing Walter’s vulnerable humanity. A lesser playwright would have sharpened the fraternal conflict by making Walter a self-interested monster. Sutorius portrays him with just the right quiet gentleness, signaling Walter’s need to rectify ancient wrongs while not assuming blame that isn’t deserved.

Prosky, who was originally slated to star in the Old Globe production with his father, Robert Prosky, who died in December, and his brother John Prosky, who subsequently left the cast, wisely leaves the door open to the possibility that Victor was an accomplice in his own disappointing destiny. Prosky is better at handling Victor’s momentous moments — when the stakes are smaller, there’s something self-conscious about his acting, which is part of the reason his banter with Mather’s Esther falls so flat.

Another reason is the clunkiness of Miller’s writing, which is always most pronounced when it aspires to be lyrical. (Seer’s subservience to over-obvious stage directions and sore-thumb lines doesn’t help matters). But as a builder of dramatic scenes of probing moral conscience and unsentimental heart, there are few American playwrights as mighty as Miller. What left me with tears in my eyes at the end of “The Price” was not just the poignant honesty of the conclusion, but the scrupulously fair way the author tallied up the contested bill of sale.

-- Charles McNulty

"The Price," Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays to Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: June 14. $29 to $59. (619) 23-GLOBE. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Photo: Dominic Chianese and Andy Prosky.  Credit: Craig Schwartz