Arthur Miller's Moralizing

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    I've always been grateful to this production, both for its own beauties and for introducing me at last to a Miller work that I could genuinely like. Miller's major plays invariably move me, but after carrying me along on their carefully arranged emotional journeys, they just as inevitably let me down. As soon as my mind starts to engage the process of "second-think," I recognize the shaky social analysis and all the problems of implausibility, moralizing, technical gimmicks and unjustified mythic conceits that serve as buttresses for the emotional edifices. But here, in contrast, is a play as tightly woven and ineluctably pitched as a classical tragedy, with a story about recrimination and redemption between two estranged brothers that rises almost effortlessly to universality largely because of its humble and precise particularity. Miller never wrote better than in The Price.

    The setting is the cluttered attic apartment of a brownstone that was once the home of Victor and Walter Franz and their father?marvelously conceived, in this occasionally powerful but ultimately disappointing new production directed by James Naughton, as a gigantic Ionesco-like exaggeration of compression and accumulation, with tables, bureaus, lamps, rugs and more piled densely, 20 feet high in every available corner, and flanked by an expressionistically distorted ceiling and rear windows (design by Michael Brown). After the father went bust in the 1929 stock market crash, he languished and moldered in this place, surrounded by relics of his lost wealth, and Victor?played here by Jeffrey DeMunn with an effectively punchy combination of no-nonsense factuality and inadvertent sensitivity?gave up his dream of a science career to care for him, eventually becoming a policeman.

    Meanwhile, Walter?played with a keen sense of patrician entitlement by Harris Yulin?went to medical school and became a wealthy surgeon, and when the play opens, the brothers haven't spoken in 16 years. Victor's grudge about his missed opportunities has festered into a noxious inertia that now threatens his marriage, and he and his alcoholic (and possibly unfaithful) wife Esther?played with superb intensity by Lizbeth Mackay as a nervous soul yearning desperately for a reason to be loyal?await Solomon, who has been called to bid on the furniture because the building is scheduled for demolition. Walter walks in just as a deal is being finalized (probably to Victor and Esther's great disadvantage), and his entrance changes the terms and spirit of the whole negotiation. Suddenly the proper valuation (or "price") of everything?not just the furniture but the whole overbearing past it palpably represents, as well as the characters' current lives?is the real subject under discussion.

    Miller succeeds in making a simple and ordinary transaction into much more than the crisis point in a family drama. The Price is as much an allegory of quintessential American selfishness and selflessness as Death of a Salesman is, but far less forced and therefore stronger and more convincing. This is partly a result of the single pressurized setting (the play is classically structured, with a single location and an action that takes no longer than the time elapsed onstage) and partly of Miller's refusal to choose between the brothers. He declares no moral victor, as he loudly does in, say, The Crucible and All My Sons. Each of the characters is equally necessary to the searing, tragicomic conclusion, including Esther, whose life hangs in the balance as much as the men's, and crusty old Solomon (note his name), with all his evasions and manipulations, offers the only guidance the audience will get in serving as judge. "Good luck you can never know till the last minute, my boy," he says at the end?the same grimly purgative sentiment Sophocles inserted into the last line of Oedipus Rex.

    As Buloff beautifully demonstrated, this crucial seriocomic judicial or advisory role is why Solomon must be played with the greatest possible breadth of soul, and it's also why Naughton's production, in which so much is impressively shrewd and right, can be so badly damaged by a single casting blunder. For one thing, Bob Dishy looks and acts too young and hearty to play Solomon. With his bearish physique and brawny growl, he never communicates real vulnerability or decrepitude and seems a contemporary of the brothers. When he comes puffing up the stairs, his exhaustion seems like a put-on. For another thing, his thick accent sounds much less Yiddish than German, and the difference between Yiddish and German is the difference between funny and unfunny, mellifluous and sinister.

    This Solomon is far too bitter, sharp-edged and calculating to read as a clown; when he eats his egg and his Hershey bar, he is simply eating, not performing impromptu vaudeville vignettes. He seems like an old Nazi imitating a Jew, prompting laughter only at the character's expense. When Victor speaks at one point of "people fall[ing] in love with you," it seems like an irrelevant delusion. Happily, the play's still powerful and relevant central speeches about the age of disposability and the fear lurking behind ambition and specialization are too strong to be ruined. The irony is that, in the mouth of such a weak Solomon?who is the heart of this play in which Miller finally transcended tendentiousness?the speeches sound vaguely tendentious.

    Those who swear by Arthur Miller as America's greatest playwright (and by Death of a Salesman as our greatest play) typically believe that the most important test of a drama is whether it is a powerful expression of collective conscience. His fans appreciate moralists, and consider him one of the greatest. They compare themselves?or their fathers, uncles and brothers?with his downtrodden heroes, feel bad about the social and family circumstances that humiliate and undo them, and leave the theater feeling righteous about the profundity of their feelings and, hence, the solidity of their positions as buttresses of America's presumably shaky conscience.

    This has always seemed to me one of the most counterproductive approaches to drama possible in a land where evasion of social responsibility begins in the cradle. Americans can't be preached to from the stage because they all feel innocent, and they won't sit still while some smart-aleck dramatist sells them ideas they don't want to buy because they've had enough of that in their daily lives. This is where Brecht, who diagnosed the problem very accurately, got the solution just as wrong as the Millers and proto-Millers of his time. Brecht's ostensible theater of free choice was really a theater of preachy parables, for the most part. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "conscience makes egotists of us all."

    Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200.

    In the Blood By Suzan-Lori Parks The proper response to this conundrum is not, of course, to give up on all topical or social-minded theater. Indeed, wonderful hybrid fruits have been bred in this orchard, in our time, by artists as diverse as Emily Mann, Anna Deavere Smith, Naomi Wallace, George C. Wolfe, David Edgar and Tony Kushner. What all these demonstrate, however, is that the only way to get away with moralism in America is to avoid oversimplification entirely and purge one's work of everything that smacks of the egotism and condescension of the explicit guilt trip. Susan-Lori Parks has prodigious talent, and many details of In the Blood, her new play loosely based on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, are subtle and beautiful. This play about a poor woman living under a bridge with five children by different fathers also marks a significant stylistic change for her, an abandonment of free-form grammar, syntax and historical excavation in the spirit of Gertrude Stein for relatively conventional dialogue in the service of Brechtian parable. In the Blood isn't the unqualified triumph that other critics have made it out to be, though, because, for all its passion, originality and admirable commitment to speaking frankly about poverty, it's also riddled with cliches and obvious moralistic antagonism.

    The actress Charlayne Woodard brings remarkable range, color and intensity to the character of Hester, the mother. Hester, who always goes hungry herself, is seen making soup for her young brood, patiently putting them to bed behind an old rusty doorway scrawled with the word "SLUT," listening to their fears and problems, and lovingly but firmly ministering to their other needs. The kids are all played by adult actors who double as their own begetters or as other grownups who exploit Hester?a doctor, social worker, streetwalker, preacher and former true love?and each of these has a confessional monologue explaining his or her attraction to Hester (who is described as very generous sexually but not very shrewd and hence ripe for victimization).

    While these confessions provide a partial explanation of her narrowing entrapment, which eventually brings on the play's violent climax, they also deteriorate as the play goes on. The liberal doctor's description of spontaneous alleyway sex and the female social worker's fantasies of administrative and sexual domination stay fresh and illuminating, but by the time the old boyfriend describes nights of love in an abandoned car and the former-street-person-turned-celebrity-preacher describes his fear that her paternity claim will drag him back into the gutter, the audience is miles ahead of the writing. Parks' basic concept of overlaying current blame-the-victim notions of poverty with Hawthorne's theme of Puritan meanness was sound and interesting. In her rage and enthusiasm, however, she grew predictable, forgetting about the severe limitations our savvy and self-satisfied era places on the playwright-preacher.

    Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. (Astor Pl.),239-6200, through Dec. 12.