Regarding decency, 'The Price' is right

January 29, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

On an obvious level, Arthur Miller's "The Price" is a play about selling old furniture and airing dirty laundry. On a deeper level, it explores how two brothers can be raised in the same household, yet grow up unable to understand each other. But most importantly, "The Price" is about decency, defined as behavior arising out of sheer altruism.

Under the direction of Joe Dowling, Arena Stage's production of this 1968 drama emphasizes all of these central points. But it is Stanley Anderson's deeply felt portrayal of Victor, the self-sacrificing policeman brother, that brings Miller's definition of decency to prominent, full-blooded life.

After 28 years on the force, Victor has outgrown his police uniform. But it's not just middle-age spread that makes the uniform look too small. It's his attitude; Anderson's body language is a combination of shrugs and edginess, suggesting he's never been comfortable as one of New York's finest.

The action of the play places Victor in an even more uncomfortable position. It is 16 years after his father's death, and the building where Victor and his brother were raised is scheduled for demolition. Victor now must not only dispose of his father's old furniture, but also deal with memories he has tried to conceal over the years.

He's called a furniture dealer, as well as his estranged brother, a successful surgeon he hasn't spoken to since their father died.

The dealer, as played by Robert Prosky -- bearded and bedraggled, yet with a philosophy as vibrant as his Yiddish accent -- is part rabbi, part vaudevillian. Prosky enlvens Miller's wordy script whenever he's on stage. His portrayal leaves no question that his Borscht Belt-inspired antics are a cover for a mind as adept at recognizing quality in people as in furniture.

Fans who followed Prosky to TV's "Hill Street Blues" after 23 seasons at Arena Stage will recognize another "Hill Street" veteran, James B. Sik- king, cast here as Victor's brother, Walter. The key is to make Walter initially appear to be the changed, compassionate man he believes he has become after a nervous breakdown. Sikking attempts to convey this by lowering his voice and, in one especially unfortunate 11th-hour moment, dissolving into tears.

But it's too soft, too calculating. Our empathy never totally shifts away from Victor, no matter how hard his wife -- Halo Wines, in a performance that is also a little too studied -- tries to prove he's being unreasonable.

And in the end, Walter is shown to be as selfish and cynical as Victor has always suspected.

We come to understand that the reason Victor stuck by his father after the old man was ruined financially and emotionally -- the reason he chose the security of a badge over the dream of higher education -- wasn't because he was a fool. It was because he's a mensch. This realization would be more powerful if Sik- king's portrayal offered a more well-rounded contrast.

But Arena's production still delivers the play's chief reward: The earnest, idealistic Victor is shown to be the heart of this family. And, while Prosky provides genuine competition, Anderson's performance is the heart of this production.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Price"

Where: Arena Stage, 6th Street and Maine Avenue S.W. Washington.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through Feb. 27

Tickets: $20-$39

Call: (202) 488-3300

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