By Karen Isaacs
One of the hardest things for most people to do, is to realize that the choices we made in life were not forced but voluntary. That often they satisfied some deep-seated need.
In Arthur Miller’s The Price which is getting an outstanding production at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, Victor Franz, a NYC police officer is forced to confront those truths. He must let go of the resentment and belief that the choices he made in life were forced upon him by others. He willingly made them.
It is 1968, Victor Franz is waiting for an antique dealer to arrive. He is finally selling the furniture and artifacts that were his father’s, though the father died 16 years before. But for some reason, it has been undisturbed until now the building has been sold and will be torn down. All he wants is a “price” for the collection of tables, chairs, bureaus, lamps and more that remain. It is clear that at one time, his father was prosperous.
Soon his wife, Esther, stops by and from the conversation we learn a lot: He and his brother have not spoken since the father’s death, the brother (Walter) is a successful physician. Esther, more than Victor, harbors resentment towards the brother, but also envies his affluence. She argues that Victor should not share the proceeds from the sale with Walter. Victor has been trying to contact Walter to let him know about the appointment with the dealer, but he is unsure if Walter got the message or will bother coming.
Soon, Gregory Solomon arrives. He is the dealer though he is in 80s and retired. He is also a talker. He talks in circles, frustrating Victor who wants him to “give me the price.” Through this talk we learn that the father had gone bankrupt during the depression and after his wife died had seemed unable to care for himself; Victor had moved him to take care him, but there was little money. He says they ate garbage.
Act one ends with the arrival of Walter. Act two explores the dynamics between these two estranged brothers. Victor dropped out of college to take care of his father and joined the police force for the security. He had given up the opportunity to pursue his interest in science. Walter, the younger, had stayed in school, contributed little to the father’s upkeep and become successful. But he had suffered a crisis a few years earlier and has developed a different perspective.
The climax of the plot is that at one time Victor had asked Walter for a loan of $500 to continue in school. Walter had told him to ask his father. Walter knew, though Victor would not acknowledge, that the father had managed to keep some money – several thousand dollars. Yet he did not offer it to Victor.
This 1968 play revisits themes that Miller developed in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons. Except in this play the father is dead, although there is a father figure. The play revolves around father-son and brother relationships. How parents often favor one child over another and what that can do to both of them. How brothers can become estranged.
But the play really deals with the choice we make and how often we convince ourselves that there was no choice.
Victor slowly begins to realize that he sacrificed for his father, not because it was the right thing to do or that there was no other option, but because it satisfied some need of his.
This production is blessed with four outstanding performances. Each of the performers mines fully the emotions, the baggage and the back stories of their characters. While you may initially view one of the brothers as the hero and the other the villain, by the end you see them as both complex human beings and feel compassion for both of them.
That is due to the find performances of Mark Ruffalo as Victor and Tony Shalhoub as Walter. They get far below the surface of their characters and show us every aspect through their gestures, voices, bodies and eyes. Too often, Walter is portrayed as both selfish and self-involved. Here you see him as a man shaken by the events of the last few years. You also see that he had more realistic view of his father than Victor had. Ruffalo burrows beneath the self-righteousness of Victor as he slowly begins to acknowledge truths that he had suspected but had pushed down.
Jessica Hecht balances Esther’s resentment of Walter and of Victor, with her realism. She keeps repeating a line that “she did not believe what she knew.”
As the antique dealer, Danny DeVito has the comic role and it makes good use of it. While, occasionally he goes overboard – spitting pieces of hard cooked egg repeatedly, it does help to break the tension.
Director Terry Kinney has managed his talented cast with expertise and has assembled a fine production crew. Each element – set design by Derek McLane, costumes by Sarah J. Holden, lighting by David Weiner and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—make major contributions to our enjoyment and understanding of this play.
The Price may be considered by some to be “lesser” Miller, but it reminds us that even “lesser” Miller is so much better than so many other works.
It is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through May 14. For tickets visitRoundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
Fiddler on the Roof is such a classic musical that is done in so many places by so many groups that it is hard to get excited about yet another production; even one directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Danny Burstein.
But after seeing this production at the Broadway Theater, I am excited. It is a marvelous production that moved me more than many productions I’ve seen – even the excellent production directed by Rob Ruggiero at Goodspeed a few years ago. I thought that set a high standard, but this production easily out does it.
You may not have heard of Danny Burstein who plays Tevye, but you should have. He is one of those consummate Broadway performers who doesn’t have a recognizable name but if you are a New York theater aficionado, you have seen him give memorable performances time after time after time. He has played Herr Schultz in Cabaret, Buddy in Follies, Luther Billis in South Pacific and Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. That doesn’t include his work in straight plays from Chekhov to A.R. Gurney to Lanford Wilson.
He is joined by an overall excellent cast.
Since, almost everyone has seen Fiddler, do I really need to go into detail about the story of the milkman Tevye living in a small village (Anatevka) in Czarist Russia, his wife and his five daughters, three of whom find husbands before the musical ends? He is an everyman. He is wise beyond his education, and though deeply tied to tradition and his Jewish faith, also willing to change with the times.
Sher has framed this piece in modern times. It may have been to help modern audiences get into the story or to show its relevance; after all TV shows about finding your roots get large audiences. So as the show begins we see a wooden sign that says “Anatevka” and then a bearded man in a red winter jacket enters. He is carrying a book and reading what turns out to be the story by Sholem Aleichem. He walks to the front of the stage, takes off his jacket and he is Tevye as he begins “Tradition.” As he talks and sings, we see the fiddler on the roof and the house slowly rises in the background. Soon he is joined by the rest of the cast.
From there the story begins; we always realize this is a theatrical production – but that doesn’t take away from the power of the show. The cast members wheel on and off trees to help set the scene.
It is the performances that make this production special.
Let’s start with Burstein. His Tevye is worn out at times but not old; he is still a vital man who has optimism for the future. Yet you see his yearning for and understanding emotional connections. It makes the song “Do You Love Me?” even more touching. You see him struggle with the new ideas that his daughters force him to accept; that he is willing to move away from tradition to more modern ideas reflects his awareness of the world around him. Often, Tevye is played by an actor who is more an actor than a musician or such a major star that the show loses its balance. Burstein is an accomplished singer as his many musical credits attest. So his musicality adds to this characterization.
Playing his wife, Golda, Jesssica Hecht gives a nuanced performance though her voice cannot compare with Burstein’s. But the role has minimal musical numbers and therefore, her limited vocal experience doesn’t harm the performance.
As the three older daughters who all break tradition in their choices of husbands, Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Samantha Massell as Hodel and Melanie Moore as Chava, each mines the characters for the core elements. All of them have both the acting and singing talents to make these characters come alive which they demonstrate right from the beginning in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” The scene (and song “Far From the Home I Love”) where Hodel says goodbye to her father as she leaves to join her husband in Siberia is touching.
As the three suitors (and later husbands), Motel, the tailor as played by Adam Kantor combines the acting and singing requirements most effectively. I could quibble that he plays Motel as too afraid of speaking to Tevye, always cowering. But that is a minor quibble.
Ben Rappaport plays Perchik, the radical student who arrives in the village and woos Hodel. His acting is fine, but he does not have the vocal chops to make the most of “Now I Have Everything”.
Nick Rehberger is Fyedka, the young Russian (and Christian) soldier with whom Chava falls in love with. It would have been good to see a little more depth in the characterization though his is a more minor character.
Alix Korey gives us a fine Yente and Adam Dannheisser is effective as Lazar Wolf, though it is not the best performance of that role I’ve seen.
The costumes by Catherine Zuber remind us that we are watching a performance; they seem too varied for the poor people living in Anatevka, especially the wedding dress for Hodel.
Michael Yeargen’s set is fluid and flexible. The opening is very effective.
One question that always arises is the choreography: Jerome Robbin’s choreography is so iconic in parts (as also happened with West Side Story) that even when it is new, it seems not. Hofesh Shecter has taken inspiration from the Robbins work – in fact, in the program it says that the entire production is “inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins.” But he has created his own choreography. Of course, he has kept the iconic hat dance in the wedding scene.
Sher also has paid homage to some of Robbins staging, particularly in the next to last scene as the villages depart Anatevka for an uncertain future. As in the original they go around in a circle carrying their belongings. But then he brings us back to the present.
A final quibble about this production: the curtain call does not give Burstein a proper “moment.” He comes out last but then instead of a second bow – or another bow by the principals – the cast goes into a closing dance. It deprives him of the standing ovation he richly deserves.
This Fiddler on the Roof will send you from the theater both thoughtful and filled with warmth.
It is at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd St.). Tickets are available from Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
As a longtime admirer of John Lithgow — from his performance in The Changing Room at Long Wharf in 1972 to today — I was looking forward to his King Lear in the current production of the tragedy now playing in Central Park through Aug. 17.
He always bring enormous humanity to his roles, whether they are heroes are villains, so much so that we sometimes like characters that we should not.
His Lear lives up to my expectations. This is a King who seemingly exhibits the early signs of dementia — where there are many moments of lucidity followed by erratic behavior and actions. He is slowly losing his ability to process information. Anyone approaching the later years of life or knowing someone who is — must recognize how terrifying that is and must, therefore, sympathize with his inability or refusal to recognize what is happening.
Before going into details of the acting and directing, the terrific set, lighting, sound and costumes must be acknowledged. This is a stage with minimal props, yet John Lee Beatty has created the perfect scenic design — a wall that appears to be metallic with an abstract pattern. He’s added the thrust stage and two wooden bridges that move on and off as needed — one on each side. Lighting designer Jeff Crotter has used that background to create a variety of effects — moving us from day to night to storm. With the lighting and the sound design by Acme Sound Partners we can feel the rain of the pelting storm and want to duck as lightening seems to strike us. In addition, three metallic panels are used to good effect as drums. The costumes by Susan Hilferty put as firmly into a medieval frame of mind.
So let’s talk about the actors and the work of director Daniel Sullivan. Sullivan gives us a clear, accessible production. Even without the synopsis, it is easy to follow. It is also a very complete version of the play, running over 3 hours. Yet, in many respects, it is a King Lear that left me unmoved. While clearly spoken, it did not leave me emotionally drained at the end.
It wasn’t Lithgow’s Lear — he did move me. Clark Peters as the Earl of Gloucester and Steven Boyer as Lear’s fool also moved me. The actors created characters you cared about. But even Cordelia, played by Jessica Collins, left me unmoved. Neither in the beginning nor the end was I invested in the character or her dilemma.
Annette Bening plays Goneril as a character who is so controlled that she seems more like an robot than a living, breathing person. Is there any emotion beneath the surface? I couldn’t find it. Jessica Hecht goes to the other extreme as Regan. This is a woman of many physical and vocal ticks, but again, it is hard to find the emotion.
King Lear has always seemed to me, to be the most “Greek” of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, and as such, I anticipate catharsis. Unfortunately in this production, despite the splendid work of John Lithgow and the production team, it did not happen.