Nothing can tear a family apart, as comedian Jack Handey once said on Saturday Night Live, like a pack of wild dogs. But inherited property and family heirlooms must run a close second. Those are the real American fetish objects—more powerful than crucifixes or fancy high heels. Family emotions, memories, and money congeal into things you can pick up, put down, or hurl across a room at someone's head. They're as unpredictable as Aladdin's lamp; they could contain fortunes or demons. Either way, they have the power to change your world.
At least it seems like that's what Arthur Miller was getting at when he wrote The Price, his 1968 play in which two estranged brothers meet, after a 16-year silence, in their dead father's cramped New York apartment. One of them is a glum New York cop (played by Charles Leggett); the other is an arrogant and wealthy surgeon (played by Peter Lohnes). They're here to sell their dad's stuff to a furniture salesman, a rascally old Russian Jewish gentleman (played by Peter Silbert)—we'll get to that thorny characterization in a moment.
Selling a parent's belongings would be a charged transaction in the best of circumstances. As the furniture dealer says to the cop: "I don't have to tell you: The average family, they love each other like crazy, but the minute the parents die, all of a sudden it's a question about who is going to get what, and in five minutes you're covered with cats and dogs." The cop solemnly responds: "There's no such problem here." But we can already tell that's not true.
The dad was a financial high roller in limousines and top hats who went bust in 1929, which seems to have driven him mad. The cop, we slowly learn, sacrificed his education in hopes of becoming a scientist to take care of the old man. The other brother fled and didn't send much money or love back home, leaving brother and father to eat out of dumpsters in that tiny apartment stuffed with memories, resentments, and furniture. The Price is a 160-minute soak in this bitter pool where people—including the cop's wife, played by Anne Allgood as a good-hearted but frustrated woman—are finally starting to say what they've been thinking for the past few decades.
Most of act one, before the rest of the family shows up, is devoted to the cop and the dealer warily circling each other. The dealer wheedles and charms in his old-world accent, tells stories of hardship and war and his young career in one of the world's only Jewish acrobat families. The cop is suspicious—"What is the price?" is his refrain—and an unstated racial tension hangs not just in the play but in the theater. If we didn't know this was Arthur Miller, son of Polish Jewish immigrants, a writer who devoted a novel—Focus—to the arbitrariness of racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular, we might be getting nervous. Is this old Jewish man trying to swindle the cop? Is the cop racist for entertaining that thought? Are we? Why is Miller pushing these buttons? "I left Russia 65 years ago," the old man says. "I was 24 years old. And I smoked all my life. I drinked, and I loved every woman who would let me. So what do I need to steal from you?... Every time I open my mouth, you practically call me a thief." Leggett and Silbert, with help from director Victor Pappas, are marvelous partners in this deliciously unsettling dance among the large wooden antiques (armchairs, bureaus, a harp, a phonograph, a sword)—the cop vacillating between patient and impatient, the dealer toeing the line between lovable old man and slick haggler.
The dealer is banished to a back room for most of act two, as the cop, his wife, and his brother begin to lay revelation upon revelation on each other, like they're stoking a fire to burn down each other's memories of the past. This new set of negotiations grinds along painfully and slowly, but has its own grim thrills (Silbert's nasal, grinning, let-bygones-be-bygones approach makes Leggett's hangdog cop even more sympathetic), not least of which is realizing that the old furniture dealer might be the play's most honest character. Business is business—but in some families, life is one long con.