By Tristan Lejeune
The plot of The Price, the Arthur Miller drama going on now until Nov. 12 at Arena Stage, is, essentially, also the central metaphor.
It’s all about the stuff. The furniture. The trappings and the baggage. The stuff that sticks around, the pieces of wood and upholstery that represent where you come from, and linger after all the parents are dead. An appraiser is coming, you see, and it’s time for one family to learn the cost of it all. Spoiler: There definitely won’t be enough to make everyone whole. What do you keep? What can be fixed? The Price is a tragedy of chairs, of armoires, of imitation Biedermeier.
In this it brings to mind two very different pieces of fiction: Henry James’s 1897 novel The Spoils of Poynton, about a family that loves its home full of antiques more that each other (the author has a fire planned), and Pixar’s 2009 film Up, in which an old man’s house is his Sisyphean boulder until he wields it like a weapon — and then at last sets it free.
The Price lacks the emotional eloquence of either of those — it is second-tier Miller — but the cast is good enough to land many of its ponderous moments.
Once, we’re told, the Franz family was wealthy, but the ‘20s stock market crash hit them hard, and now, in 1968, there’s not much left but an attic crammed with desks, buffets, and broken radios. Victor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), the son who stayed behind to look after a now-deceased patriarch and became a cop, and his wife, Esther (Pearl Sun), are desperate for a cash infusion. Less so older brother Walter (Rafael Untalan), who “never looked back” and became a very successful doctor, and indeed still is, despite his nervous breakdown and divorce. To say Victor and Walter resent each others’ life choices would be an understatement the script could use more of.
Enter Gregory Solomon (Tony and Emmy winner Hal Linden), a Russian-born octogenarian used furniture dealer with three or four ex-wives and enough anecdotes and hard-won wisdom to fill an hour of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” He and Victor kvetch and banter endlessly before he ever dreams of offering an estimate.
I don’t know if the first act needs more melodrama or the second needs more comedy, but either way they feel disjointed. Solomon is basically the star of Act 1 — Linden amiably chews the scenery and the odd hard-boiled egg — but then Walter shows up just before intermission with a camel-hair coat and scores to settle and the heavy lifting begins in earnest after the break. Solomon largely disappears so the brothers and sister-in-law can scream at other unabated as old wounds bleed all over the place. Act 2 gives The Price significantly more heft, but it also tips over into depressing as the three endlessly spar around Dad’s long-empty chair (director Seema Sueko’s blocking is not subtle; you know someone will plop down in that chair eventually, but only at the end).
Sun and Untalan admirably refuse to let their characters become one-note. She seethes with decades of resentment and the frustration of dreams denied. He opens up — you believe for the first time ever — without ever really coming out from behind his high walls. And Linden is the pepper in the pot; his character basically serves to keep the show watchable.
But the actor who pulls the play out of the fire is Ebrahimzadeh. He has the hardest work to do, playing moments of revelation, shame, moral righteousness, and quite a bit of pain, and he dives in. The climax is his.
The show has plenty to say: about how money dominates our lives and poisons our relationships, about how the decisions we make are sometimes obvious to everyone but us, and about the past doesn’t just haunt, it stalks, too. But it’s the humans here who are the audience’s reward, not the messages.
The Price is not a precious antique, but it’s a perfectly comfortable reproduction.