The Price of Brotherly Love

Arthur Miller's Cain and Abel tale that could use some speed

How can you not be leery of a play staged in an attic? The ominous mahogany furniture, the curled yellowed pages of old newspapers and photo albums, and the inevitable sepia-tone photos hark back to a time only remarkable to the people who own the clutter. Most attic settings are a surefire ticket to a trip down memory lane, and if the play is a drama, the ride is sure to be a bumpy one. Fasten your seat belts. Arthur Miller's The Price is no exception. The ancient furniture that is too big to fit through streamlined contemporary doors is just one of the many oversize creatures from the past lurking in the far reaches of the Franzes' brownstone apartment.

This is the story: When his millionaire father lost his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, son Victor (Dan Lauria) abandoned his studies in science to become a cop, so he would have a stable income to support the family. His brother, Walter (Walter Charles), cut himself off from his father and Victor and went on to become a wealthy and successful doctor. Decades later, in 1968, after their father has passed away and the old family brownstone is set to be leveled, the two brothers are to reunite to sell off its contents. After unsuccessfully trying to communicate with Walter, Victor takes it upon himself to bring in an antiques dealer, Gregory Solomon (Jack Klugman), who makes him an offer for the furniture. But when his brother finally does arrive, offering friendship and financial assistance after a long rift, Victor must make a decision.

The central metaphor of The Price represents one of the biggest struggles in contemporary American culture: family versus money. On a deeper level the play is an excavation of memory and an exploration into the cause-and-effect mechanism that human beings use to evaluate their lives. As Victor's wife, Esther (Ronnie Farer), points out: "The biggest decision is the one you don't know you're making until the results start coming in."

Walter, while living quite comfortably, had only sent a gratuitous five dollars per month to help the family. Victor attributes his lack of success in life to the fact that he had to take on the responsibility that his brother shunned. He claims Walter is trying to reconcile with him to absolve a guilty conscience. But Walter reveals that their father had some money left over after the crash and manipulated Victor so he wouldn't be abandoned. In a volley of arguments with their origins in Marxist and Freudian theories, we see the modern-day Cain and Abel destroying each other to vie for their deceased father's affection. Known for the sheer force of The Crucible and the lyricism of Death of a Salesman, Miller has less success with The Price, considered by many to be his most humorous play. The playwright himself said the play deals with the two things he knows best: money and family feuds. The energetic performance of Dan Lauria and the alchemy of Jack Klugman's quirky Solomon keep The Price engaging, but what is interesting becomes redundant in the play's slow and laborious pace.

This flaw is all too apparent in the first half: It is far too long, slow, and drawn out for the content. Aside from some clever dialogue between Solomon and Victor, the first half pretty much assembles the cast and sets the scene. Director Robert Kalfin might do well to reconsider the pacing here. We don't need much of a buildup to get to the inevitable meeting and the central conflict between the two brothers. The great length of time the play takes to get to that point is tedious and uninteresting. Another important directorial consideration should be the era. The Price takes place in 1968, but it's filled with references to the depression. While a good number of theatergoers can identify with that era, others think depression means Prozac, and the insider references to those times will be too obscure.

That the script itself contains these weaknesses is a challenge. The main conflict is one of values. Victor believes he did the right thing by sacrificing his career to help his father; Walter believes his father was manipulative and that Victor was a sucker to fall for it. The decidedly Freudian slant may have seemed fresh in 1968, but it's not original enough to hold today's audience for an evening.

As the brothers unravel their conflicting versions of the past, we find an intriguing dialogue surrounding the idea that each person's perception is his reality. But the play largely unveils this concept through discourse and a few plot shifts, while the central themes seem to be hashed out, rehashed, and then summarized, causing the energy onstage to become stagnant. At these times the actors seem more like orators than performers.

Lauria plays the role of Victor with a lot of heart. As his character emotionally crescendoes, Lauria is smart to delay unleashing the anger and frustration he's been holding in, so that when he does explode, the emotion feels authentic. He also has a keen sense of timing in his exchanges with Charles. He paces, listens, and argues. He picks up the money Solomon is offering him for the furniture and puts it back down, revealing his indecision. Lauria also has mastered the countenance of an all-around good guy, which makes his character convincing and moving when we see his lot in life. Whether viewed through his eyes or his brother's, it's a sad one.

Klugman pulls off the comic component of the show. The audience spends half the time trying to figure out if he's on the up-and-up in his role as antiques dealer, and the other half not caring because he's so endearing. He shuffles around shooting out wisecracks and speaking in non sequiturs that are quirky and wise. He is the seemingly harmless clown, like Shakespeare's Falstaff, with lines such as, "Jews have been acrobats since the beginning of the world." But he also is a King Solomon, offering wisdom and perspective on the fraternal conflict.

Charles is urbane and cool as Victor's successful brother. At times his lines feel a bit false, but when he confronts Victor for being a martyr, saying, "It's a fantasy that your father was penniless, your brother a son of a bitch, and you had nothing to do with it," the force of his character comes through.

As Esther, Ronnie Farer shows us both a purse-clutching alcoholic and a dedicated wife. Unfortunately the actress has not been given much with which to work. Indicative of the time, Esther is defined by the men in her life. Farer is capable but there is nothing particularly stellar about her presence. Her role ranges from stomping off to a mirror to "fix her face," throwing temper tantrums, or standing quietly off to the side while the men argue. She is, however, able to give some emotional depth to a certain line. When she tells Victor, "You're just afraid that he's a decent person," she makes it sound confrontational instead of simply whining.

At its best The Price delves into and accurately traces the origins of one brother's resentment and the other's guilt -- and for a good part of the second half, this is unraveled with dramatic energy. But if an itemized list of "It was like this" versus "No, it was like this" could be cut off at its most powerful point, The Price would be much more compelling.

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