The Toll the Great Depression Took

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, The Price

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

What is the price that each of us pays for our lives?

For Victor Franz, it is a lifetime as a New York City cop instead of a career in science that he always wanted because he had to stay home to take care of his dad in the Depression. His father was emotionally devastated when he lost millions when the stock market crashed in 1929. Victor’s wife’s price was living with a man whom she always knew could do better. Victor’s brother Walter is a highly successful doctor who had an emotional breakdown over money and greed and is trying to rebuild his life.

They all bump into a man who actually sets the price on things, crusty Gregory Solomon, a furniture appraiser.

Solomon is rummaging through the Franz’s attic trying to set a price for all of their furniture, some are emotional pieces with ties to the family and some are nothing but a lot of wood. Some have beauty, like a harp. Some have memories, such as an old fencing foil. Some are just heavy. Some are just junk.

All of the characters converge in the attic in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price, which opened last week at the American Airlines Theater on W. 42d Street in New York. It is a deeply emotional, gut-wrenching and dazzling play, a drama that makes people in the audience think about the price that they paid in their own lives.

The play stars the mercurial Danny DeVito as the appraiser, Solomon, Tony Shalhoub as his brother Walter, Mark Ruffalo as Victor and Jessica Hecht as Victor’s wife Esther, who is always told that she looks good in new clothes.

Solomon is there to put a price on the Franz furniture in 1968, years after both parents died. He is negotiating with Victor when first Esther, and then Doctor Walter, arrive and all fall into a dispute on what the price should be. Then the price of the furniture diminishes in importance as the family members feud over issues in both the past and the present, covering trouble filled eras from 1936 to 1968 and all of their woes swirl around the ghost of their dead family patriarch, who spent the rest of his life sitting in an old leather chair in the living room, all of his money gone, he said, with nowhere to turn.

The Price is a story about family squabbles over generations of pain filled U.S. eras.

There is a lot of history in The Price. Perhaps the best moments are when son Victor tells stories about going to Bryant Park, in mid-town Manhattan, in 1936 and looking at all of the newly unemployed men, their best clothes on, lying on the ground, emotionally devastated, covering the entire area of the park, with no grass left, and his vision of seeing his dad there if he does not help him out financially. It is a story, told beautifully by Ruffalo, that breaks your heart (my own grandfather was out of work for three years in the Depression and his kids had to work after school to pay his rent). There are numerous references to immigration from Russia to the U.S. earlier, told by Gregory Solomon, and his years of penny pinching to get by in America.

The play starts out as a comedy when the beloved old appraiser arrives and begins to charm the cop, who quickly realizes that the old man is trying to gain his love in order to gain his furniture. They go back and forth in a nearly hour long dialogue that is full of humor and has the audience roaring; the biggest roar line is when Solomon, turning to the audience, says at one point that “the federal government is not reliable.” Another is the sight of DeVito trying to eat a hard-boiled egg as his lunch. The story of the family is vaguely chronicled in this first act. In the second act, though, the appraiser leaves and the family engages in a vicious duel over who did what and said what to whom years ago. A great mystery develops and they all try to solve it, one more tearfully than the other.

In the end, you do not know whom to feel sorry for, or to whom to affix the blame. In the end, too, you see that this is a story about any family and its troubles. They are all buffeted by history, here pretty grim history from the Depression, and try to learn how to cope with life, and the bad hand that America dealt them.

Arthur Miller’s writing is beautiful, as it is in all of his works. It is not lyrical, or gauzy, but straight on and pulse pounding, with valleys of somberness. The play is brilliantly directed by Terry Kinney, who really digs out the past from the characters and heightens the tension, one minute after the next.

He gets fine performances from everybody in the cast, but in the end you have to admire the work of Ruffalo, the retiring city cop. You shake when he shakes, you cry when he cries and, like him, through your own life, you wonder what ever happened to your dreams, those fabulous dreams you had as a teenager, when all the world was beautiful.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Sets: Tom Watson, Costumes: Sarah J. Holden, Lighting: David Weiner, Sound: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. The play is directed by Terry Kinney. It runs through May 7.

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