I want to like Arthur Miller's plays -- and I do like his politics. But the truth is, I have trouble with Miller even at his best -- with his lack of humor, ponderousness and stultifying self-pity, with his dated tropes and florid language. And The Price, currently playing at Germinal Stage, is far from his best.
The action begins with Victor, a uniformed cop, wandering through a room full of furniture: desks and boxes, chairs, lamps, a harp, a crooked picture on the wall. He turns on an ancient phonograph and is rewarded with the crackly voices of vaudeville couple Gallagher and Shean, a woman's voice laughing uncontrollably. Then Victor's wife comes in, and the two quarrel. We learn that the furniture belonged to his father and he's about to sell it. Esther, a neurotic woman chronically distressed by her husband's lowly station in the world, insists that Victor get a good price. This provides grounds for the play's informing metaphor. Soon Victor is bargaining with ancient appraiser Gregory Solomon, who brings a note of humor to the proceedings. At this point, I'm hoping that the play will be a comedy -- a deep, rueful comedy with all kinds of subtext, of course, but a comedy nonetheless. No such luck: Enter Victor's brother, Walter, a rich, successful surgeon, and the talk begins.
What's with Miller and brothers who are -- or aren't -- sufficiently good to their fathers? In Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman endlessly guilt-trips her two boys about their indifference to their suffering failure of a father. Here the boys guilt-trip each other. Their father was ruined during the Depression, and Victor believes he selflessly gave up his education to care for the old man. Walter sees it differently, however. He says their father was not only able to work, but also had a little money -- a fact that he hid from Victor -- and this justified Walter's decision to leave the family to its own devices and pursue success. But Walter, too, has paid a price (uh-huh) for the path he took: troubled children, a broken marriage, a mental breakdown. And on and on they go, arguing, accusing and self-justifying, until you want to scream.
Everything is heavy with symbolism. Solomon's name is surely no coincidence. And he's not just some very old fellow Victor found by accident in the phone book; he's someone from another era and another world -- immortal almost, resilient, resourceful, humorous and cunning. Victor and Walter's father gave up in the face of adversity, but Solomon knows how to weather change; he's never lost his appetite for life, marrying for a second time at the age of 75. Jews have been acrobats since the beginning of the world, he tells the sons.
Throughout the play's second act, all of the characters except Solomon keep launching into cloudily poetic monologues, replete with sentences like "Why is finality always so unreal?" The plot should provide a sturdy underpinning for all this existential angst, but it refuses to hang together, as if Miller really couldn't be bothered with anything so mundane as structure. The money issues are confusing, too. We're told that Victor was unable to finish college because neither Walter nor their father would loan him $500. But even in 1968, when the play is set, this would seem a manageable sum to borrow -- even if it wouldn't be enough to get you through school. As for Esther's endless kvetching -- what's so awful about being married to a cop? For that matter, if Victor is as smart as the script suggests, why hasn't he risen higher in the force?
Still, Paul Caouette is an effective Victor, though he tends toward melodrama as the action continues. Tupper Cullum is perfect and perfectly charming as Walter, and, in an effective performance, Albert Banker makes Gregory Solomon part cynic and part twinkling Jewish Santa Claus. Erica Sarzin-Borrillo is an actress I admire, but her whippet-thin elegance does nothing to humanize the annoying Esther. Miller's women are pretty uniformly useless (I've always wondered why Linda Loman never offered to get a job as her husband descended into despair), and Esther is squarely in the Miller mold -- though she's perhaps slightly less annoying than the brothers' dead mother must have been. According to Victor, she learned from their father that the family had lost everything when the two of them were dressed to go out for the evening -- and she promptly threw up all over her red evening dress and her husband's arms and hands, "just kept on vomiting, like 35 years coming up." This incident is supposed to be highly significant -- the stench of sick, the parallel to Victor and Esther's planned movie date at the beginning of The Price -- but it's hard not to laugh at the portentous language, harder still to imagine any flesh-and-blood woman behaving this way.
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