A Price Thats Almost Right

Far be it from me—red, white and blue, star-spangled blood coursing through my veins—to ever suggest that the deification of the Greatest Generation is sentimental bullshit. Those self-sacrificing, steely eyed pragmatists survived the darkest days of the Great Depression and went on to conquer real evil during World War II.

But I do understand the rising backlash against this glorification among less historical types. After all, it's difficult to comprehend such notions as morality, sacrifice and duty when the most serious crisis in your life is slow Internet access.

That fact makes this a great time to revive Arthur Miller's 1968 play, The Price, now receiving a rare and welcome production at the Laguna Playhouse. While it's a timeless work—the central conflict is between two brothers attempting to dispose of the belongings of their deceased father—it's also a struggle between two contradictory elements of the American psyche for control over the content of the American Dream. On one hand, there's the individualist blessed with naked ambition who will succeed at any cost; on the other, there's the self-sacrificing, morally bound sufferer-in-silence who forgoes his career and dreams in order to take care of his family.

In The Price, the ambitious success is Walter Franz (Steve Vinovich), a brilliant, respected surgeon who is terrified of failure and determined to win. His brother Victor (Herb Mendelsohn) is an honest, salt-of-the-earth New York City cop who bailed on his own promising academic career to take care of his ruined father during the Great Depression.

Both men are obvious products of their upbringing—two sides of the same father. Dad, who died 16 years before the play begins, was a prosperous businessman bankrupted in the crash of 1929. His wife died shortly after, and Dad collapsed into near-invalidism. As Victor says in a typically Millerian critique of capitalism, "Some men just don't bounce." Haunted by the unspeakable sin of being a business failure in a country that venerates wealth, the father was moved from his vast home to the crowded little attic of that vast home; gathered around him in his slow decline were his once-elegant furnishings, collecting dust.

Both Walter and Victor know this home well. Victor spent much of his life there, taking care of his father in the leanest of times by scrounging for food in garbage cans. Walter fled. He was determined to escape poverty, and he did, abandoning his family and choosing to finish school.

The "price" of the play's title refers to the consequences both brothers have endured—and continue to endure—for their choices and for the deceptions they've either bought into or allowed to run their lives. For Victor, it's the realization that—surprise—success doesn't buy security. Walter's price is the sacrifice of his own dreams and his marriage to Esther (Marilyn Fox), a woman who still clings to the fantasy that maybe it's not too late to grab that coveted brass ring.

More concretely, the price refers to the money the brothers will earn from the sale of their father's old furniture. That is what has prompted their nervous reunion after 16 years of silence. Gregory Solomon (Allan Arbus), an eccentric, charming 89-year-old antique dealer, is on hand to make an offer, but really he's just a stand-in for moral conscience, a wizened (Solomon—geddit?) and eminently likable Jiminy Cricket.

It's a powerful setup that never truly pays off. One exception is Solomon, who's played to masterful effect by Arbus, a wonderful actor best known for playing the humanitarian shrink on the TV show M*A*S*H. Otherwise, characters in The Price don't seem fully defined or even real; too often they sound like nothing more than mouthpieces for Miller's politics.

Director Richard Stein does a fine job of moving this talky play along and of making it easy to follow the slow unraveling of the web of lies at the play's core. But neither he nor his cast can overcome the deficiencies in Miller's script. Miller is almost always a genius, and The Price has its fair share of gripping moments and probing intellectual dissection. But from this production you get the sense of a play helplessly entangled in its own thicket of words. There is so much talking in the play's two and a half hours it's nearly impossible to mine the buried treasures of subtext in the script. It's therefore difficult to truly care abut these characters even as they reach for some notion of forgiveness and community.

Still, this is a serviceable production of a play long ignored in Miller's canon. Thanks to a successful Broadway revival in 1999, the reputation of The Price has been restored, and it's once again on the radar screens of regional theaters. That is a good thing. This play, like all of Miller's work, takes a vested interest in such old-school notions as morality and civic obligation. It shows how those concepts can serve to burden as much as elevate, especially in a society in which the reigning economic system is based not on morality or equality, but on a Darwinian survival of the fittest that stems, ultimately, from nothing more than naked fear—fear of being poor, of being a failure, of not having respect. The toll exacted by that fear, Miller says, is a price we all pay dearly.

The Price at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Feb. 4. $34-$43.

 
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