The backdrop for “The Price,” Arthur Miller’s provocative, ever-timely play that is now receiving a first-rate production by Raven Theatre, is an attic apartment in a once grand, soon-to-be-demolished New York brownstone. The place is stuffed, floor-to-ceiling, with weighty, now old-fashioned furniture, rugs, memorabilia and memories. It is the detritus of a once prosperous family that was undone by the Depression, and whose principal legacy is the bitter estrangement between two brothers that has endured for decades.
It is easy to see why director Michael Menendian chose this particular moment to revive Miller’s 1968 drama – a play that might well be seen as an intriguing companion piece to “Death of a Salesman.” Though set decades after the Depression, the roots of the story are to be found in that life-altering period of economic upending. And Miller gives us a searing account of how we are both the product of our times, and the product of our innate character.
When the Depression hit the Franz family it undid the businessman father whose wife soon died. Victor Franz (Chuck Spencer), “the good son,” who had hoped to be a scientist, gave up on higher education, opted for the secure job of a cop and essentially devoted himself to supporting his broken father. He married Esther (JoAnn Montemurro) and raised a successful son, but his life was one of pared-down expectations and sacrifice.
Meanwhile, Victor’s more “selfish” brother, Walter (Jon Steinhagen), finished med school, became a well-to-do doctor and lived the good life, contributing nothing to his father’s upkeep. Yet at some point he suffered a serious personal crisis.
When the two brothers, who haven’t seen each other in many years, are finally forced to empty the attic (applause for set designer Amanda Rozmiarek and set dresser Mary O’Dowd), Victor takes the initiative and calls a furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon (Leonard Kraft), who may very well be one of Miller’s most engaging characters.
An 89-year-old businessman with an immigrant past and his own personal tragedies – but with an enduring and undeniable zest for life and work – Solomon is decidedly Jewish, though as is usual with Miller, that word is never uttered. Kraft captures the character to perfection, and the stage lights up whenever he is there to play his deft psychological games.
There is much raking over the past between the two brothers, and between Victor and his wife. And there is much highly amusing back-and-forth as the wily Solomon tries to strike a deal.
Early on in “The Price,” when Victor is alone, he winds up an old Victrola and listens to a popular laugh-track recording from his childhood. That laughter resonates. And once all the revelations in the play have been heard you might well find yourself wondering: Who really does have the last laugh in life? Who survives, who prevails, who comes away with the best deal? Or is the whole endeavor just one big cosmic joke?
Good questions for any play to pose.