The Price Is Right (On)

Cal Bartlett and Don Moss

At a Paul Winter concert (I think it was) one summer in the 1980s I somehow found myself backstage at Carnegie Hall beside a very tall man. I looked up – as it turned out to be, both literally and figuratively – and was shocked to see who stood next to me. “God bless you, Mr. Miller!” I blurted out to the American Shakespeare, much to the amusement of Arthur Miller. I proceeded to have a conversation with the socially conscious playwright of Death of a Salesman about nuclear free Palau, where I was then living in Micronesia.

So it was with great expectations that along with Jacob Kamhis, co-writer of the new play Air Force Man, I attended the premiere of Miller’s The Price at L.A.’s Theatre West, and I was not disappointed. If rats are a leitmotif of George Orwell’s books, running from Down and Out in London and Paris to Homage to Catalonia all the way through Big Brother’s torture of Winston Smith in 1984’s dreaded “Room 101”, then the flopped businessman is Miller’s recurring nightmare of the American Dream gone wrong.

Unlike Miller’s immortal Willy Loman (the low man on the tradesmen’s totem pole we get the lowdown on in Salesman), the failed wheeler-dealer in The Price is never seen onstage, yet his presence is felt everywhere. He is the deceased father of brothers now in their sixties, NYPD officer Victor Franz (Cal Bartlett) and surgeon Walter Franz (Don Moss). Although the patriarch is long dead the long arm of the law of the persistence of memory still haunts his sons who grapple – literally and figuratively – with their old man’s legacy, as they meet in an attic to dispose of family heirlooms and belongings. An 89-year-old appraiser (a droll Marvin Kaplan as Gregory Solomon) and Dianne Travis as Victor’s wife Esther also complete the scene.

Marvin Kaplan, Dianne Travis

This confrontation between the brothers has been simmering since the Great Depression, and is a sort of High Noon without the gunplay (despite that fact that Vic, as one of NYPD’s blues, is indeed packing heat) – call it High Strung Noon. It’s a sign of the playwright’s prowess that Miller’s able to generate emotional intensity crackling with tension without resorting to violence as many screenwriters often do, substituting mindless action for thoughtful probing of the human condition in order to ratchet up viewers’ passions. But even more than that, Miller uses the family drama as a microcosm of capitalism, and how it affects ordinary people ensnared by it and market mentality.

The 1929 stock market crash sets the wheels in motion for this Tony Award-winning drama that debuted on Broadway almost 40 years later. The Depression wipes the Franz’s pater familias and his business out (or does it?). Vic, who has a promising career as a scientist before him, abandons his dreams (and hope) to support his broken old man as a cop (the security of civil service, don’tchaknow?), while Walter apparently goes his merry way to attain fame, fortune and status as the man of science Vic could have also been. Esther is Vic’s long-suffering wife, driven to drink by her yearning for the good life and respectability that only money could buy (or can it?). As the appraiser, Solomon puts a dollar value on the accumulated possessions in the old family attic, where Vic and his father had sought refuge from the ravages of the Depression (losing the rest of what had been their home), as the house faces demolition in New York’s never ending cavalcade of urban renewal.

Cal Bartlett, Marvin Kaplan

But the analytical bard is not content with just exploring how the collapse of capitalism affects individuals, but how its underlying ideology poisons them and their relations with one another, rendering them into being what Herbert Marcuse called “one dimensional men” (and women). Willy Loman and the Franz’s father may be fiscal fiascos, but Walter’s eminence and “success” has also taken their toll on him, and his relationship with his family. What price making it? Like Miller’s Salesman masterpiece, and his war profiteering drama All My Sons, The Price is a scathing critique of the capitalist system, which places a price tag on everything and everyone.

Amidst the bric-a-brac for sale is the harp their long dead mother once strummed, before surrendering her dreams of la vie artistique in order to be taken care, by any means, as the wife of a man of means. Miller captured and expressed the hippie critique of materialism and nine-to-five drudgery then in vogue when The Price premiered in 1967. However, considering today’s crises and free fall of the free market economy, The Price has a renewed relevancy for today’s audiences.

(And now, a word from your sponsor: Speaking of capitalism, Theatre West is creatively coping with the current financial challenges. It was announced before the curtain that set designer Jeff Rack’s onstage antiques, knickknacks, furniture, etc., were supplied by a named L.A. shop.)

Of course, Miller is a dramatist, not a pamphleteer, and it’s this playwright’s enduring genius that he presents all of the above in a highly entertaining way, deftly directed by Stu Berg with skilled ensemble acting by an able cast. But by placing the angst of his dramatis personae firmly within the context of capitalism, Miller clearly illumines the long day’s journey into night of the Franz family. (By the way, not enough emphasis is placed on Eugene O’Neill’s connections to the Left, from John Reed and Louise Bryant to the Group Theatre and the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project. They clearly impacted on his thinking, as his characters, too, often act out of an economic imperative that influenced their tormented psyches.)

Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller (Photo: Richard Avedon)

Although the ancient appraiser sometimes personifies capitalism, other times Gregory Solomon displays an all-knowing wisdom of Solomon, as he coolly, analytically appraises the situation (even as he hustles to make a buck and to revive his once thriving livelihood and raison d’etre). Solomon also provides the comic relief in what might otherwise have been an overheated family drama, as Marvin Kaplan wittily steals most scenes he’s in.

Arthur Miller ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare, and wrote a brilliant critique of the HUAC/Hollywood Blacklist/McCarthy Era, setting the anti-communist witch-hunt during the Salem witch trials in The Crucible . His then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, helped spare Miller from the worst that the 1950s grand inquisitors inflicted upon artists during the Reds-under-the-beds hysteria. Not so the late Oscar-nominated actor Larry Parks, whose widow, Betty Garrett, was one of Theatre West’s first members, and who attended The Price’s premiere. Parks was called to testify before HUAC on March 21, 1951, not long after attaining stardom in two biopics about Al Jolson. Parks told the congressional Committee: “Being a member of the Communist Party fulfilled certain needs of a young man who was… idealistic… for the underprivileged, the underdog.”

Not content with forcing Parks to confess about his own political affiliations, HUAC’s Torquemadas pressured Parks to inform on other La-La-Land leftists, and he testified: “I don’t think this is American justice to make me… crawl through the mud… This is what I beg you not to do…I am no longer fighting for myself, because I tell you frankly that I am probably the most completely ruined man that you have ever seen. I am fighting for a principle, I think, if Americanism is involved in this particular case… I do not believe it befits this Committee or its purposes to force me to do this. This is my honest feeling about it. I don’t think that this is fair play. I don’t think that it is in the spirit of real Americanism. These are not people that are a danger to this country, gentlemen, the people that I knew. These are people like myself.” Despite his tearful confessions and eventual informing, Parks was cruelly blacklisted anyway; what a price he paid.

I had the honor of meeting Ms. Garrett at the generous reception following The Price. When I told her I’d been named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his exposes of fascistic Sen. Joe McCarthy, her eyes sparkled. It was the cherry on the cake, the fitting end to an exciting evening at the theater, where The Price was right on. If Orwell was terrified of rats, for Miller, capitalists are the rats on a sinking ship.

The Price is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 21 at Theatre West, 333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A., CA 90068. For more info: (323)851-7977; www.theatrewest.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.

Published by the LA Progressive on February 19, 2010
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About Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.