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Arthur Miller’s The Price made its Broadway debut in 1968, a year fraught with political upheaval. The play does not deal with political assassinations, racial unrest, or rioting, and yet its themes get at the existential rot many Americans faced in the twentieth century. It seems deep resentment and angst never go out of style, so Arena Stage’s mounting of The Price is vital even today. Nothing about the play is particularly fashionable, and yet there is urgency to the dialogue and intense, acutely-felt performances.
Set designer Wilson Chin frames the stage with dusty furniture, giving the impression of a forgotten attic. The first minutes unfold wordlessly, with an air of nostalgia as Victor Franz (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) removes white sheets that cover chairs, sofas, and armoires. He finds an old phonograph, and is delighted when it is still functional. Victor is wistful and silent, feelings that govern the drama that follows.
His wife, Esther (Pearl Sun), arrives, and they discuss money. It is never an easy topic, particularly since their lifestyle is comfortable but not affluent. Victor works as a police officer, and at age 46, is in a position to receive his pension. More importantly, he and Esther are sitting on a potential windfall: The building Victor inherited from his late father is about to be demolished, so they have hired an appraiser to value and collect all the furniture. That man, Gregory Solomon (Hal Linden), is a smooth-talking, larger-than-life octogenarian. Solomon is quick to warn Victor that family matters always complicate his business, which is of course what happens when Victor’s estranged brother Walter (Rafael Untalan) unexpectedly arrives.
Miller’s dialogue has two distinct modes. Early in the play, he reveals his ear for mid-century slang. Victor speaks like a man who’s worked a beat for decades, but there are subtle inklings that he is fiercely intelligent, which is not always associated with his vocation. Eventually the audience learns that indeed, he was once a promising university student. That unexpected intelligence is necessary for the play’s second mode, when Victor and Walter—a successful doctor—engage in a sustained, deeply personal battle of words. This dialogue is more grandiose, as Miller turns his characters into metaphors for different ideas of success and sacrifice. The Great Depression informs the rift between the siblings, and it is thrilling to watch them relitigate a past during which their father’s actions negatively influenced their lives.
Driven by Miller’s expert dialogue, The Price’s highlight is a sustained negotiation between Victor and Solomon that happens in the play’s first half. Ebrahimzadeh and Linden are alone on stage for an extended period, and the audience’s collective anxiety grows as the men circle around a dollar figure. Victor has no taste of the song-and-dance of a sales pitch, and Solomon relishes the opportunity—he says that this appraisal literally added years to his life. You may recognize Linden from the ’70s sitcom Barney Miller, on which he played the straight man to comic actors like Abe Vigoda. His role as Solomon is markedly different. He is The Price’s exaggerated, comic figure, and like Solomon, he clearly relishes his role. Ebrahimzadeh is a good foil for Linden: square-jawed and serious, and yet somewhat receptive to his charms.
With regard to its dramatic structure, The Price is an odd play, made up of two massive scenes, with a handful of short ones around them. It’s as if Miller would rather explore his bigger themes, instead of frame the narrative in a more traditional way. The “price” in question takes on many forms, whether it’s the cost of the furniture, or the bigger emotional costs to Victor, Esther, and Walter. Part of what makes the wounds deeper, however, is the sense of lost affection between Victor and Walter. They have a shared history, but their different paths through adulthood prevent them from connecting with each other any longer. Esther is no slouch either. Sun’s performance is disarming: She speaks with the affected accent of a sixties housewife, but never demurs to Victor.
Director Seema Sueko includes few flourishes in her production, and instead lets the actors’ performances speak for themselves. Each character is wholly fleshed out, conveying more emotion and meaning through actions and looks than any piece of dialogue. It is harrowing to watch Ebrahimzadeh seethe silently as Untalan’s Walter cajoles and condescends to his younger brother. The drama never devolves into to a full-on shouting match, since these characters yearn to be understood more than they yearn to win the argument. There are no answers in The Price, or any sense of conclusion or satisfaction. Like Miller’s most famous plays, his unearthing of our collective desperation is enough.
1101 6th St. SW. $71–$111. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.