I don’t know when Arthur Miller decided to bookend “The Price” with a recording of men laughing, but I fear the idea came to him first and then he put a play in between.
The laughter at the beginning prompts a smile in the character listening to the record, Victor Franz (Gary Maggio); at the end, the laughter produces tears in the old man listening to the record, Gregory Solomon (Jack Fallon), but it’s not clear whether they’re tears of amusement or despair. Maybe after the domestic dispute Solomon has just witnessed, the laughter is of the existential sort: Life is a cruel joke, and our attempts to make sense of why we’re here and how to behave are futile.
Alas, except for a few funny moments provided by Solomon and some dramatic ones provided by Victor’s wife, Esther (Katherine Ambrosio), this family drama feels contrived — and from a playwright who gave us “All My Sons” and “The Crucible,” two well-made plays whose tensions unfold credibly and powerfully. Here, it’s hard to work up a caring feeling for anybody when so much of the explanation the audience needs comes at play’s end, when the characters provide new information in such quantity that there’s little time to understand it, process it, or be moved by it.
Victor has come to sell his late father’s furniture, hiring appraiser Solomon to assess its value and cart it off. Victor plans to split the proceeds with his older brother, Walter (Howie Schaffer), a well-to-do doctor, despite Esther’s complaint that Walter hardly needs the money and the brothers haven’t connected in 16 years. Suddenly Walter arrives. Recriminating fireworks ensue, capped by Solomon’s disturbing laughter — in short, family dynamics with which we all are familiar.
The technical aspects of this production are first-rate, from the cluttered, detailed set by Laura Brignull; the subtle lighting design by Daniel Winters; the period (1968) clothing by Sherry Recinella; and the provocative sound design by Ann Warren. The open window upstage lets in the sounds of the city, reminding us that these personal events are happening in real time while the rest of the world goes by — nice touch. Hats off, too, to John J. Quinan’s stage management.
Director Bruce Browne has helped his quartet of actors negotiate the space comfortably and delineate the arc of emotions. Fallon ably provides the humor, but some of the mannerisms that make him a local comedic treasure work against him here, particularly an excessive physical fussiness, wandering accent, and slow pickup of cues. Walter appears at the end of Act I, but in one act only, Schaffer credibly paces Walter’s shift from control, to confession, to fury.
Ambrosio is marvelous at depicting an alert, middle-aged woman itching for more out of life than she has gotten but still willing to stand by her man, even if it means drinking to get through the compromises. Maggio plays Victor low-key early on; it’s emblematic of Victor’s passivity that, as a policeman, he has made just 19 arrests in 28 years. But that tentativeness at the beginning gives Maggio a place to go later in revealing Victor’s pent-up disappointments, guilt and anger. And Maggio and Ambrosio create a believable couple.
In announcing next season, producer Carol Max dubbed Curtain Call a “small theater” making “a big impact.” Even though “The Price” doesn’t, mounting any Miller is a worthy effort.