An Arthur Miller play is a thing of beauty: unflinchingly honest, forever relevant and priceless. Or perhaps "priceless" is not quite the right word, as there is always a price in Miller's plays -- frequently pain, sometimes destruction. So perhaps "thing of beauty" is also misleading, because Miller's plays are also ugly in the way anything unabashedly broken can be ugly, like his characters and the world in which they live.
His play "The Price," now being presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, is no different.
The play takes place in New York in 1968, a time in which the Great Depression remains vividly planted in America's living memory. When the Manhattan brownstone where he grew up is set to be demolished, Victor Franz, a cop facing retirement, decides to sell the antique furniture that remains. But when his successful, estranged brother, Walter, returns in the middle of the appraisal, the brothers must address some unresolved issues between them and ask the question of who's culpable for the different ways their lives turned out.
Uncompromising values, success, control, power, respect, freedom: What do they all cost? There must be some dollar amount that translates, but for both Victor and Walter, the prices they paid for the lives they chose didn't turn out to be quite what which they bargained. And it is, in fact, all about bargaining, the back-and-forth haggles between Victor and the appraiser, Victor and his wife, Victor, and Walter, and between each of the characters and an America that value wealth, success and that ever-important bottom line.
The set at the American Airlines Theatre is a perfect rendering of the Franzes' attic full of antiques. Cluttered with old tables and chairs, dressers and armoires, many of which also hang from the slatted wooden ceiling, the stage feels mired in nostalgia. The cloudy backdrop, dreamy and romantic, set behind industrial water towers, creates a moody opening while Mark Ruffalo, as Victor, takes the stage.
In "The Price," Miller has written characters whose motives are questionable, whose fears are revealed as the things that most define them. Trying his hand at Miller's everyman cop, Ruffalo, best known for his film work but no stranger to the stage, unfortunately, cannot rise to meet the demands of the character Miller has written. Stiff and distant, Ruffalo is unable to break the vocal monotone for which he's so famously known, offering little emotional modulation in a role that requires moments of explosion, revelation, breakdown and release.
The rest of the cast struggles as well; Jessica Hecht, as Esther, Victor's wife, comes across as wooden and one-note, and Ruffalo and Hecht have no chemistry between the two of them, each seemingly acting to the static space between their bodies. As Walter, Tony Shaloub, of "Monk" fame, manages to create in the prodigal brother a despicable character who is nevertheless still sympathetic and suffering in his own right, though the accent he chooses for the role sounds too affected to be anything but distracting.
Danny DeVito, in his Broadway debut as Gregory Solomon, the Russian-Jewish appraiser, is genuinely funny, providing the perfect amount of comedic relief, especially in the first act, though his accent changes from line to line, swinging from Russian to New York Jewish to tried-and-true DeVito and back again.
In general, conveying and maintaining convincing accents proves a difficult challenge for the actors, whose deliveries suffer the worse for it. So there's the matter of the accents and the matter of the actors' lack of chemistry, but there's also the matter of timing, which always feels just a second or so off, making it seem as though the actors are delivering the lines through brick walls, independent of each other.
The way the characters interact, even physically, feels as uncomfortable and unnatural as four strangers being thrown onstage together and asked to pretend they're a family -- or at least pretend they're not four strangers on a stage.
Though the performances in this production flounder and don't live up to the potential of the writing, they are still fascinating even in their moments of awkwardness and unease. And a Miller play that suffers from some missteps in its presentation is still, in the end, a Miller play.
If nothing else, Act One has laughs delivered courtesy of DeVito's wonderfully ridiculous Solomon, and Act Two has the dramatic sequence of confrontations and revelations that bolster the performances, as the actors are then able to let the play's natural momentum help push them through to the conclusion.
"There was nothing here but a straight financial arrangement," Walter says near the end, referring to their family, their home. He says it with cynicism, as a man who chose to believe in something he ultimately finds hollow, just as his brother sacrificed his future for something that may not have been real.
The problem, of course, is beyond the two estranged brothers, beyond the discontent wife, and the wily appraiser; the problem, Miller says, is the fear seated in the heart of the American psyche, the uncertainty beneath all the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed hope of the American Dream.
In the end, the questions remain simple but dangerous all the same: What do we value? What do we believe in? And what is the price that we're willing to pay?
"The Price" runs through May 7 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. For tickets or information, call 212-719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org