One unchanging set. Four actors. A straight timeline. Two hours and twenty minutes. Maintaining an audience in a state of full engagement with a 47-year-old play within such parameters puts demands on a director, but poses an even more serious challenge for any group of performers. Regardless of material and direction, the actors must have presence—that quality that compels the watcher, holds their attention, makes them forget the artificial constructs before them and invest in what’s unfolding on the stage.
Michael Elich, who plays the protagonist Victor Franz in Artists Rep’s production of The Price, has the presence to pull all this off. Which is just as well, as the opening several minutes of the 1968 Arthur Miller drama sees him alone on stage, unspeaking, under the expectant gaze of his audience.
Franz is rooting around his late father’s furniture, preparing for its sale, the memories each piece evokes playing across his face. Enter his wife Esther (Artists Rep Resident Artists Linda Alper), who is anxious he get a good price to facilitate her stated desire for a more comfortable life and the kind of freedom it would buy for her New York beat cop husband.
They’re waiting for a furniture dealer to evaluate the items, though it’s clear that the cost of what his father has left him with is harder to pin down than Franz had anticipated. Elich plays him as solid, but not stiff, and he has in Joseph Costa – the exuberant octogenarian Jewish furniture dealer Gregory Solomon, who is short of breath but long of wind – the perfect foil. Their scenes together are the play’s zenith, with Elich’s straight man neatly counterpointing Costa’s crazy.
But it’s with the arrival of Walter Franz (Artists Rep Resident Artist and Artistic Associate Michael Mendelson) that the stories everyone has spent the preceding acts shoring up fall apart and are rewritten. Victor struggles to reimagine his life’s key choices in the way his brother presents them and the audience struggles with him. The Franz brothers' arguments circle around the unoccupied chair of the play’s fifth character, their dead father, their tense triumvirate bringing echoes of Willy Loman and his two sons in Death of a Salesman.
It’s a specifically New York, specifically 1960s play, and yet under the sure hand of director Adriana Baer (Profile Theatre’s Artistic Director), there’s a universality to the explorations of memory, shared experience, even money. Because in the end, that’s what it all comes down to: their father’s lost wealth, Walter’s financial success, Esther’s desire for more and Victor’s refusal to let it rule even though his whole life pivoted on a loan he could not secure.
And though it’s Solomon in the end who parts with the cash, what Baer lays bare is that each of the other characters has paid the price.
The Price is at Artists Rep through April 26