Arthur Miller and John Guare look at two very different families in The Price and Six Degrees of Separation, two great plays about American life. Terrific writing combines with outstanding performances to produce compelling and thought-provoking theatre.
Six Degrees Of Separation
I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought. How Paul found us. How to find the man whose son he pretends to be. Or perhaps is his son, although I doubt it. How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.
Trip Cullman’s revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991, now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, makes a determined effort to mine the material for maximum laughs, and, by so doing, sharply illuminates the thoughtful undercurrents which will stay with you long after the laughter has passed. Loneliness, in all its many guises, and the thirst for acknowledgment, acceptance – these are the themes which will haunt your thoughts more than how many steps there are between you and any other person on the planet.
Allison Janney is in spectacular, towering form as Ouisa, the wife of art dealer Flan Kitteridge. Archetypal Central Park overlookers, these rich New York liberals are looking to make a deal involving a Cézanne painting. Into their minimalist world charges a young man, Paul, who says he has been injured in a mugging, who says he is the son of Sidney Poitier, who he says is currently directing a musical version of Cats. He also says he is friends with their Harvard attending offspring.
Ouisa and Flan take Paul in, believing his tale. But when they discover that Paul has brought home a hustler for sex, the story unravels. The naked hustler, apparently high, rampages through their pristine apartment, causing chaos. Paul escapes and peddles his lies with a young couple. He seduces the man and steals their money. The aftermath brings him back into plaintive and painful contact with Ouisa, who tries to help him. Whether she does is, in the end, unclear.
The play has much to say about the art world and its peculiarities and low points. The wheeling and dealing which accompanies the acquisition and disposition of great art is contrasted with Paul’s low rent fraud. Which carries the greater culpability? Equally, the play makes no bones about the price that society’s reticence about accepting sexualities other than heterosexuality as normal makes those who are not wholly heterosexual pay. Who are the real victims in this play? The Kitteridges? Not likely. Paul? Rick? Trent? Indeed.
Cullman’s production bristles with clarity and sureness. Mark Wendland’s marvellous Rothko-esque set design anchors art and appearances as fundamentals. Clint Ramos’ costumes add lustre and Ben Stanton does terrific work with lighting, drilling into the soul of the scenes with effulgent determination. Everything about the production looks perfect, especially for today when a gaudy, garish millionaire is ensconced in the White House making bubble-headed-booby acting a presidential skill. This is very much a production for the time of Trump.
Janney is electrifying as Ouisa: she is adept at the funny, klutzy comic opening scenes and others where Ouisa is out of control, an obvious farceur approach underscoring the text. But she has moments of blistering effectiveness in the reflective moments, especially those towards the end of the play, when Paul calls for help and when she understands the grimness of the world that she and Flan inhabit.
Her final speeches are magical; the kind of experience you go to Broadway hoping to find. The look on her face in the last moment will stay with me for a long time. An actor at the very top of her game.
The scene where James Cusati-Moyer’s completely naked hustler runs amok in the Kitteridge apartment is truly hilarious, especially when he mounts John Benjamin-Hickey’s hapless Flan in a moment of inspired lunacy. It is this ability to be hilarious while dealing with a serious subject which really makes Guare’s writing timeless. Despite the passage of nearly thirty years, not much has changed.
Benjamin Hickey is quite wonderful as Flan, and he and Janney are completely convincing as life partners who are as lost as they are bound. He makes you believe that he can be a ruthless art dealer and a hopeless father, all the while certain he is “doing the right thing”. Flan’s naivety in matters outside of his immediate attention is sharply drawn by Benjamin Hickey. A beautifully sculpted performance of great wit. Compelling.
The Kitteridge offspring and their friends are played with surprising, but wholly effective, selfish vacuity. They are very funny, with Keenan Jolliff’s (Woody) meltdown about a given away pink shirt a true highlight. There is great support too from Ned Riseley (Ben) and Chris Perfetti (Trent).
Less convincing was Corey Hawkins, whose Paul was simply not charismatic enough to convince as the lynchpin of events. There is no simmering sexual chemistry about Hawkins, and the open honest face approach is insufficient to make the many faceted Paul really shine. Nor did he evoke sympathy, which is critical if the play is to properly work its magic. The audience has to fall for Paul just as his victims did. Hawkins did not score that goal.
Nevertheless, the crisp writing, the deft direction and the centrepiece performances from Janney and Benjamin Hickey make the 90 minutes of Six Degrees Of Separation pass easily, with attention fully engaged. It’s funny, cringe-worthy and disturbing – just as it should be.
Arthur Miller’s The Price might have been called Of Furniture and Men. It is a static piece of theatre revolving around the disposal of the furniture of a dead father, a process overseen by two estranged brothers, one of their wives, and an eccentric second hand furniture dealer. Despite this unpromising scenario, The Price is one of Miller’s most obviously resonant plays and, perhaps surprisingly, probably the funniest play he ever wrote.
At times, the two brothers here (Victor and Walter) seem like variations on Biff and Happy from Death Of A Salesman. Miller claimed that the characters were not autobiographical but they certainly seem very real.
Victor has been a policeman for 28 years. Walter is a successful and well off surgeon. Victor could have studied science but someone had to look after their ailing father and that price was paid by Victor. Walter refused to assist Victor financially at the time and that turns out to be a price paid by both of them. There are other prices paid, as the narrative discloses when it suits the viewpoint of a particular brother.
Victor is salt of the earth good guy, a man who has worked hard and had a good life and a lasting marriage. He has mostly suffered silently and although he and his brother have not spoken for a long time, he reaches out to him in the matter of the disposition of the father’s furniture, the furniture of their childhoods. Walter does not respond, but turns up unexpectedly just as Victor and Gregory Solomon, the furniture dealer, are striking a deal having apparently agreed a price.
The play is in two distinct parts – the lead up to Walter’s surprise appearance and then the fallout from that intervention. From the moment Walter arrives, Victor carries part of the agreed price in his hands, the notes a symbol of the price about to be paid and all those paid before. Gregory wants the deal sealed, Victor wants his brother back, and Walter doesn’t really seem to know what he wants except to try and improve perceptions about his life and motivations.
As a play, The Price does not play with form or style as other works by Miller do. It is a typical old-fashioned tale, albeit one that is complex and engrossing. There are a lot of words and they require superb actors to keep interest levels high and to maintain interest in the characters.
Terry Kinney’s production is blessed with four excellent actors. Mark Ruffalo is exceptional as Victor. He radiates ordinariness as well as a sense of a long life spent in service and compromise. He seems almost crushed from the weight of his hard but fruitful life, but he never seems broken. Fires still burn inside his soul.
Ruffalo and Jessica Hecht give a masterful portrait of a marriage that has lasted long because truths are told, conflicts faced, and issues confronted and dealt with. Hecht’s character is scantily written – Miller hardly ever gave the same attention to his female characters as he did to the male ones – but she manages to make Esther seem wholly convincing, a perfect partner for Ruffalo’s Victor. They have moments of anger and others of tenderness, but the join between them is clear, the well worn arguments and well negotiated compromises etched clearly in what they say and don’t say.
There is tremendous comic assurance about Danny Devito’s cunning and plain odd Solomon. Watching him eat an egg is a surprising comic feast. Devito plays the fool, but you clearly see the savage instincts for survival and success which underpin every offhand remark or encouraging suggestion. When he darkly suggests that Esther should “leave it to the boys” the smell of misogyny is stark. It’s a very accomplished performance, tremendously unsubtle is some aspects, but, equally, subtle in many others. There is only one price Solomon is interested in – the one he sets.
Tony Shalhoub’s Walter appears suddenly at the end of Act One, just as Solomon is trying to lock Victor into that price. He breezes refined and slightly arrogant air into the apartment and stops the deal being made. The play changes entirely at that point, the change sustained by Shalhoub’s energy and style.
While Walter is very different from Victor, Shalhoub and Ruffalo convince as blood brothers, the sense of rivalry between the two crystal clear. Less clear, but still present, is a sense of what they owe each other as brothers and what they did or thought they did owe their deceased father. Has Walter come to help or to cause trouble – or both? The answer to that question is never really clear.
As the brothers unravel the set of circumstances that led to their estrangement and their present situation (Walter’s life, it turns out, has not been as smooth-sailing as Victor’s, in every way except the accumulation of funds) accusations mount and secrets revealed. While Solomon argues for the payment of the price he has set for the furniture, Walter offers different, more lucrative, options about the disposal process. But what is the price worth paying? Especially in view of the price already paid?
Ruffalo and Shalhoub are in scintillating form as they dance around each other, explanations and justifications flying. Each is adept at slow reveals and sudden snaps. The marks of the prices each has paid – time, money, hope – is clear on each brother. They are marvellous to watch.
Derek McLane provides a curiously cluttered set, with much furniture on the floor and more suspended from the ceiling. The walls of the brownstone are absent, and beyond the collection of furniture and bric-a-brac, the skyline of the city can be seen. It may be that this is to suggest some universality about the subject matter or the characters and, perhaps, that is true. But The Price seems more about a specific family unit than a generation or a national identity.
Kinney’s production is detailed and absorbing, and it is difficult to imagine better performances. Funny and moving, occasionally startling, The Price is well worth its price, both in time and cash.