With used furniture you cannot be emotional," a decrepit furniture dealer explains as he delays making a financial offer for family heirlooms crammed into a brownstone attic. Yet raw emotion is laid bare throughout Arthur Miller's four-character chamber drama The Price, which is currently receiving an engrossing staging from Avalon Theatre Company. When two estranged brothers reunite to dispose of their parents' Depression-era furniture, a wary civility soon gives way to accusations and counter-charges. Before these brothers part, festering bitterness, resentments and jealousies will boil over. Although their grievances are rooted in the almighty dollar, the cost of a lifetime of separation has taken a toll on both brothers beyond monetary value.
Victor and Walter Franz might be Death of a Salesman's Biff and Happy Loman twenty years later. At age 50, Victor is a New York City cop. Though he has passed retirement age, he cannot summon the courage to quit his detested job and begin a new life. His brother Walter is a prestigious scientist. In school Walter was not as bright as Victor, but he was more ambitious. Walter's personal life is a shambles, but he keeps reaching for ever more successful heights. Why have these two not spoken for sixteen years? Like the furniture, that secret is locked away in this musty attic.
The Price has never been regarded as one of Miller's top-tier dramas, a lofty niche occupied by Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and All My Sons. There are reasons critics pounced on the piece when it debuted in 1968. The play is overwritten. The real action doesn't kick in until Walter's tardy arrival at the end of Act One. Family revelations are unveiled in a too-arbitrary manner. But what may have seemed like thin broth in 1968 plays like a full-course meal in 2011. Anyone who has been starving for the kind of theatrical fireworks that stem from a theater of purpose and passion will find them here. Under the tutelage of director Bobby Miller, who, as always, conducts with a nuanced eye and a keen ear, the Avalon acting ensemble renders a gorgeous performance.
Gregory Solomon is the showy role. This 89-year-old wisenheimer provides the comic relief, a quality often lacking in Miller's dramas. But Solomon should be more than a laugh maker. Not only does he serve as a surrogate for the brothers' deceased father, but he also provides a striking contrast to Victor: By purchasing (and then reselling) the furniture, this semi-retired octogenarian is prepared to embark on the kind of adventure that frightens Victor, who is nearly 40 years his junior. Bob Harvey's engaging portrayal does not reach for laughs. Harvey is amusing enough, but his Solomon is more endearing than riotous, and wise like his (perhaps too obvious) name. A refreshing choice.
As Victor's wife Esther, a long-suffering woman who has lived with disappointment for too long, Peggy Billo has the evening's least sympathetic role. How does an actress cry out, "I want money!" and still make us care for her? Billo finds the balance. Victor is also a role fraught with challenges. "You're a policeman," Solomon tells him. "You know this world." Yet Victor doesn't even understand himself. "I look at my life and the whole thing is incomprehensible to me," he confesses. John Contini, who portrays Victor, leads the viewer on a subtle journey of discovery that Victor himself is unable to take.
Then there is Peter Mayer's labyrinthine Walter: vain, confused, irritable, panic stricken. Myriad conflicting emotions are stored behind Walter's placid mask of a face, waiting to be released. Mayer elevates Walter into a character of infinite fascination. In recent years Mayer has played larger parts than Walter (Willy Loman, King Lear), but he has never fashioned a more shaded portrayal. This is that rare thrilling alchemy of actor and role. A creation like this speaks with more eloquence to the art of acting than can any words that attempt to describe it.