Until Tony Shalhoub arrives on stage to usher in a very different second act, theatergoers at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre might get the impression that they’re watching a big, broad comedy. So what if the play is Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” which opened Thursday?
Until Shalhoub’s entrance at the very end of act one, Danny DeVito has single-handedly turns “The Price” into a Jewish laugh riot with his expert turn as Mr. Solomon, a comfy, psychologically astute furniture dealer right out of the Neil Simon playbook. Mr. Solomon gets the best price (for himself) by talking about everything — his wives, his retirement, his health — everything except what price he’s willing to pay for the two Franz brothers’ furniture, left to them by their long-departed father.
“The Price” may mark DeVito’s Broadway debut, at age 73, but there’s no doubt about it: He’s a real stage animal. He even takes focus before he appears on stage. We hear him huffing and puffing in his long ascent to the top floor of the Franz brownstone, and he looks ready to detonate from the effort once he is able, finally, to offer his belated hellos to Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) and his grasping wife, Esther (Jessica Hecht). DeVito’s delivery and timing are impeccable. Only Nathan Lane can compare. Some producer should pair them on Broadway, although the experience might end up killing an audience with laughter.
As for “The Price,” it’s difficult to say what director Terry Kinney means to tell us about the play with this production’s four diverging performances. Adding to the confusion is Derek McLane’s overly grand stage design. We’re not stuck in a little attic observing a family drama here. McLane floats much of the for-sale furniture above the actors’ heads, and beyond is a city skyscape of water towers and billowing clouds that dwarf the characters.
Except for Mr. Solomon.
DeVito’s sheer presence quickly fills the void that has been Ruffalo’s performance in the play’s opening moments. It also throws “The Price” off-kilter, but who’s to complain? You will sorely miss Mr. Solomon in the second act when he all but disappears to let the two Franz brothers and Esther argue over money, furniture, and their deadbeat dad.
Victor is the good son to the bad son of Shalhoub’s Walter Franz. Victor is the one who paid the price of eschewing a major career in science to become a cop so he could take care of his bankrupt father during the Depression. Walter is the one who abandoned the father to pursue his own very successful career in medicine, and now must pay the price of all that guilt.
There’s a design to Ruffalo’s very low-key performance in the first act: He’s saving it for his big confrontation with Walter late in the second act. The problem is, the actor hasn’t found a way to make compelling what is Victor’s repressed but very deep resentment against Walter. It doesn’t register until long after Shalhoub’s entrance. And it doesn’t help that Ruffalo overworks the New York accent in the beginning, making his character’s speech almost indecipherable.
Shalhoub dominates just as Mr. Solomon goes off into the wings for most of act two. There’s no trace of the street in Walter, but there’s also no trace of his being Victor’s brother. It’s a valid interpretation of the role. But unlike DeVito’s bravura (and over-the-top) performance, Shalhoub lets the technique show. His arms and hands never stop moving, almost like the flapping of wings of an injured bird. There’s irony in Walter’s many unctuous overtures to his brother, but there’s sense and reason, too. Shalhoub only plays the coy irony.
Hecht also gives a very stylized performance, but one that goes right to the heart of her character’s materialism. Esther has attached her life to the wrong breadwinner, and feels she’s now paying the price in her middle age.
Esther Franz is another of Miller’s reactive female characters. It’s curious that two years before “The Price” opened on Broadway in 1968, Stanley Kauffmann wrote the infamous essay “The Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” published in the New York Times. The critic lambasted three gay playwrights (Williams, Albee, Inge) for offering “a badly distorted picture of American women….,” among other offenses. Esther is so unrelievedly crass in her concerns that, in comparison, she turns Maggie, Martha, and Cherie into paradigms of towering womanhood.