Arthur Millers 1968 play pushes buttons about family, furniture, and anti-semitism.
  • John Cornicello
  • Arthur Miller's 1968 play pushes buttons about family, furniture, and anti-semitism.

Nothing can tear a family apart, as comedian Jack Handey once said in a bit 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...