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‘We invent ourselves,” Walter Franz tells his brother Vic, “to wipe out what we know.”

The title of Arthur Miller’s 1968 drama, The Price, points in various directions, none of them fixed. Ostensibly, it’s about the current value of pre-Depression furniture. The attic of a New York brownstone, about to be torn down, looks like a cluttered antique shop: a wicker bassinet, sturdy Spanish Jacobean table, old baseball gloves and bats, puffy chairs, even a stately harp. The myriad items, many hanging in clusters from the ceiling, read like a family’s biography — up to a point. There’s nothing new after 1929. That’s when Victor and Walter’s father crashed with the stock market. They moved his possessions into the attic, where he lived, surrounded by a time capsule of bygone affluence, for another 30 years.

During much of the Depression, Victor abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor and cared for his ailing father. When Victor married Esther, they lived in a single, furnished room so he could pay his father’s bills. He became a policeman and now (1968) will retire, but can’t decide what to do.

Brother Walter went to medical school. His motivation, far from Hippocratic: make mountains of money, enough to ward off future economic disasters. He sent Victor five dollars a month to care for their father. Walter became a successful surgeon but at a price. He was in such demand, his wife divorced him. She took the children, and in time, he had a nervous breakdown. The brothers have been estranged since their father died 16 years ago.

The sibling opposition looks pat: the unselfish son sacrifices hopes and dreams; the greed-machine, who refused to loan his brother $500 for school, abandons familial responsibility and lights out for the lucre. But, as Walter points out, each view is an invention, designed to bolster self-images and block the truth.

The furniture’s from “another world,” as is the appraiser, Gregory Solomon. The 89-year-old came from Russia in 1903. His last name’s a symbolic, fount of wisdom giveaway. The playwright stuffs him with author’s messages, including a great speech about our disposable economy: buying something permanent locks you in for life; whereas something new means the prospect of limitless, if evanescent, choices (“close the stores for six months...there would be from coast to coast a regular massacre”). When Solomon says “with furniture, you cannot be emotional,” he also means casting a cold, realistic eye on the past.

What actually happened becomes a three-person — if you count Esther, and she does — Rashomon. Through many a long scene, they wipe the grime from the lenses on their lives. And the more they see, the more a tidy resolution fades away.

Arthur Miller said that for each of his plays, he probably wrote at least 2000 pages. He also said, in 1979, that he only read snippets from books and grew impatient with overwritten prose: “the older I get, the more I wish to cut” them. I guess he hadn’t read The Price lately. The play moves in authorial nudges. He’ll break up a scene by having someone about to leave, then pull them back, and haggle some more. And his characters, often like puppets, work hard to represent his pat, schematic themes. The play runs just under three hours (Miller originally wanted it performed without an intermission). It eventually catches the fish, but that bait’s a long time in the water.

The Old Globe Theatre’s sketchy opening night performance led to chins on hands and seat-squirming. It didn’t help that Dominic Chianese — unforgettable as Uncle Junior in The Sopranos — was barely off-book. He gave Solomon a stutter to conceal his going up, but his quirky timing consistently threw the cast curves.

Solomon’s the kind of sagacious, life-force character actors beg to play. Chianese’s performance misses Solomon’s ultimate struggle: is it time to exit this strange, disposable world, or should he forge anew?

James Sutorius does a fine, honest turn as Walter, the erstwhile evil brother redeemed by a vision of antimaterialism. Sutorius gives subtle hints that Walter hasn’t recovered completely from his breakdown. Andy Prosky makes Victor such a walking question box, he comes off not as a self-sacrificer, just chronically indecisive. (Sutorius and Prosky could kick the many slow stretches into higher theatrical gear if they stressed the sibling rivalry earlier.) Leisa Mather does what she can as Esther, who mostly complains. Every time she threatens divorce, the playwright cuts her off.

The Old Globe’s “Classics Up Close” series presents renowned theatrical works on an intimate, arena stage. Seen from this perspective, however, Miller’s drama looks more contrived than “classic.”

The Price by Arthur Miller
The Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Richard Seer; cast: Andy Prosky, Leisa Mather, Dominic Chianese, James Sutorius; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts, costumes, Charlotte Devaux Shields, lighting, Chris Rynne, sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through June 14; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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