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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Arthur Miller's "The Price" at Irish Classical


a cop and a smartly dressed woman sitting in a crowded attic, her head on his shoulder
Ben Michael Moran as Victor and Kate LoConti Alcocer as Esther in Arthur Miller's "The Price" PHOTO: Jorge Luna

We have a penchant in our society for disposing of great artists during their later careers. The current Irish Classical Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s The Price is a vivid reminder of this. After its debut in 1968, Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote, “The label of Arthur Miller is not always an easy one for a play to bear -- it raises certain expectations. Go expecting to see a play and perhaps The Price might disappoint you.”




Sadly, examples of late career dismissal are numerous.  Plays like The Children’s Hour and Little Foxes made Lillian Hellman the toast of Broadway, but it took years for her later plays like My Mother, My Father and Me to be re-evaluated. Clifford Odets was hailed as a titan of the theater with pioneering social protest plays like Waiting for Lefty, but later personal dramas like The Big Knife were all but ignored. Tennessee Williams’ later plays like The Night of the Iguana and Clothes for a Summer Hotel did not achieve the same level of success as his earlier hits like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


In every instance, these underrated works were re-evaluated by later generations and recognized for their greatness. 


Miller was celebrated as the god of post-war American realism after Death of a Salesman in 1949 and The Crucible in 1953.  Later plays like After the Fall (1964), and The American Clock (1980) were dismissed as inferior geriatric efforts. It wasn't until decades later that theatergoers and critics recognized these later Miller plays as great works by a master. These plays are now hugely admired and frequently revived.  The Price falls into this category.


How lucky, then, that the Irish Classical Theatre is giving the play a handsome outing, under the direction of Fortunato Pezzimenti with a first rate cast. Several people mentioned to me after the opening night performance, that they didn’t expect the play to be so good. Well, it is that good. Miller’s exploration of tangled and irresolvable relationships is masterful. 


I have often read that the play is about how two estranged brothers reach an understanding about their complex bond.  Seeing this production, however, reveals that no such understanding ever occurs in the play.  That is, flat out, not what The Price is about.


Yes, brothers Victor and Walter Franz meet 16 years after the death of their father to decide what to do with the family furniture. But detached Walter Franz does not appear until the final moments of the first act, and the two men never come to any common understanding.


The year is 1968.  As the play begins, Victor enters an attic room of an old New York brownstone.  It’s jam-packed with nice looking furniture.  A dining table; chairs, an armoire, an upholstered settee, chandeliers, lamps, old knickknacks, a harp. Victor is wearing a policeman’s uniform.  He surveys these old things for several minutes.  Clearly, these objects evoke powerful memories.  At this point, all we know about this man is that he is a cop.


A woman enters the scene.  She is well-coiffed and smartly dressed in a brightly colored suit.  She speaks.  Her heavy working-class New York City accent tells her whole story. 


This is Esther Franz, Victor’s wife. The sale of this furniture is important to her.  She wants her husband to retire. She wants to live a comfortable life. She is unhappy that Victor is in his uniform, because they are going out tonight. 


“We go out so rarely -- why must everybody know your salary? I want an evening! I want to sit down in a restaurant without some drunken ex-cop coming over to the table to talk about old times.”


They are waiting for the furniture dealer. 


We learn that Victor has tried to contact his successful physician brother, ostensibly half-owner of their father’s things, numerous times, but the man has never come to the phone or called back.  Finally, Gregory Solomon, the elderly furniture dealer arrives.


The interplay among these characters is as artful as it is deceptive. The reviews of 1968 seemed to explore the Gregory Solomon character most closely, as if he were the main character. He is a brilliant creation, but the play is not about him. Solomon provides comic relief and serves as a kind of Greek chorus to this dysfunctional family whose problems were all germinated by long ago events. 


Tom Loughlin plays Gregory Solomon, giving him great warmth and humor as he skillfully navigates the Franz family problems with a talent honed from decades of similar interactions.  This is a perfect performance from one of Buffalo’s most venerable and admired actors. 


But there is more.


Ben Michael Moran and Todd Benzin are exquisitely matched as the mismatched brothers.  This pairing is dynamic and powerful.


Moran creates, in Victor, a deeply moral and loyal man who is embittered over the dreams he has sacrificed to take care of their elderly father. The actor movingly captures both his character's simmering resentments and his deep-seated feelings of regret.  Moran creates a man who is intensely committed to his anger. Still, despite his greatest efforts, he cannot help but reveal glimpses of tenderness and vulnerability, particularly regarding his unfulfillable desire to reconnect with his brother, Walter.


Benzin plays Walter, who has lived a luxurious but emotionally empty existence until the disappointments of his life oblige him to reconsider his choices. Benzin captures Walter's smugness and sense of superiority with casual self-assurance, while simultaneously revealing insecurities and misgivings about the decisions he has made, sometimes through manipulatively timed revelations, sometimes in uncontrollable flashes.


In their searing confrontations, Moran and Benzin match each other, beat for beat.

Theirs is an intricate dance of recriminations, jealousy, and failed attempts to understand each other after years of separation.  The traumatic events of their younger years fuel a confrontation that is highly dramatic and theatrically satisfying, but that is, ultimately, unresolvable and therefore, pointless. Director Pezzimenti calibrates this escalation, never allowing full throated emoting until its final moments. 


This conflict between brothers is, you see, a decoy, a distraction. The conflict at the heart of play lies elsewhere, and is hiding in plain sight.   


The relationship that undergoes transformation in this play is not between the brothers; it is between Victor and Esther Franz.  It is they who must arrive at a common understanding.


Kate LoConti Alcocer plays Esther.


Of course, I expected LoConti Alcocer, the recently stepped-down artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre company to be good.  She is always good.  On this occasion, however, she is stunning! Have we been taking LoConti Alcocer for granted? I found myself sitting up and leaning in when she spoke. Suddenly, Esther, an ancillary character in many productions of The Price, is front and center.  Her worries and her regrets seem enormous and urgent. 


I urge you, as other characters duke it out, to turn your eyes to LoConti Alcocer. If the essence of acting is in the listening, LoConti Alcocer is brilliant!  The brothers’ impassioned fights are, when all is said and done, a lot of huff and puff and “but-it’s-your-fault,” “No! it’s your fault.” While this adolescent squabble is exploding with ever increasing nastiness, look stage right, where director Pezzimenti has seated LoConti Alcocer, in a position of focus and power, creating equal balance between the two men and this lone woman who is undergoing a metamorphosis. 


Miller’s plays offer numerous examples of married women, confined by the gender norms of their time, whose insight and intellect shed light on the predicaments of their husbands.  Think of Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible; Kate Keller in All My Sons; Beatrice Huddleston in A View from the Bridge; Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman. These women are amazing dramatic creations. They often speak Miller’s most famous and haunting lines. At a time after women got the vote but before the Women’s Liberation Movement, Miller could feel change fomenting in the female population. This might sound cryptic or ridiculous, but if you want to understand the most powerful message in The Price, follow the dry-cleaning!  Esther is the lynchpin to everything. 


The Andrews Theatre has been divided for this production, with the seats on the south side blocked off to create a deep thrust stage.  While my mind did go to how powerful and thrilling this play might have been, given the immediacy and intimacy of a circular space, the set by gifted David Dwyer, the crowded attic of a New York brownstone, placed on a deep thrust, creates a marvelous atmosphere and serves the play admirably.  Costumes by Lise Harty are excellent.


The play explores themes of family loyalty, regret, and the worth we assign to material possessions and social prestige. The Great Depression looms large in Miller’s plays.  In this play, it resonates through the generations of a family that once owned a brownstone and employed a chauffeur, but now has two brothers, one a doctor and the other a cop; one married with a son on full scholarship at M.I.T., the other divorced and recovering from a breakdown, with kids who haven’t amounted to anything.  The Depression held a unique set of lessons for women who learned, after the crash of 1929, that the ability of men to sustain families was circumstantial, and that sacrificing your own talents for the sake of a husband’s success, might prove to be a bad bet; think of Victor and Walter's late harp-playing mother in this regard. Esther certainly comes to a new understanding of her own life and a new appreciation for her husband through the events of The Price. Maybe we are better prepared for Miller’s exploration of the impact of the American Dream on personal values and relationships today than audiences were in 1968.  The Price at Irish Classical Theatre is a revelatory experience. 


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