This is one of Arthur Miller’s successes, and though it’s been revived three times on Broadway since it first appeared in 1968, it has never attracted the audiences that flocked to Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and All My Sons. But since it opened in the year in which the play is set, it was topical and relevant at the time. It ran over a year.
It is still topical and relevant, for it deals with how the past catches up with all of us. In this case, an old man has died in the home he bought decades earlier, leaving behind a batch of old furniture and oddities that require disposal, and in the fall of 1968 that’s just what Victor Franz, one of two surviving sons, is arranging. He has not heard from his brother Walter in many years, and his wife is not happy about his decision to sell everything to the first dealer who makes him a reasonable offer. On this particular day he is waiting for just such a dealer, a man whose name he simply found in the telephone book. (Remember them? If not, they listed names, addresses and phone numbers). He is Gregory Solomon, he’s quite a character and he will show up in time to liven things up a lot.
There will be heated negotiations, and not a few laughs, as Solomon and Victor battle out a deal. Solomon has his pitch down to a science; he’s been using it for a very long time, and now at 88 he’s not about to conclude the day without a happy ending for himself. Esther Franz, played with enormous conviction and strength by Jessica Hecht, who last season gave pungent life to a similar yet different Golde in Jessica Hecht. Both of these formidable characters are on the edge of liberation, but they will not qo quietly into that sweet good night. Their marital battles are waged to the hilt, and if they don’t always triumph in every skirmish, they make most impressive adversaries.
However, this play deals more prominently with the battle between the two brothers, for Victor’s estranged brother Walter does show up and the battle is joined. Mr. Miller is a master at confrontational dialog and he’s in top form in this outing. He’s helped enormously by the beautiful work of Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub and returned to the very welcoming stage from which they sprang. Mr. Ruffalo did impressive early work in This Is Our Youth and Awake and Sing, while Mr. Shalhoub enlivened our scene in Act One and the revival of Golden Boy. Their acting chops have not been diminished by the use of different muscles before the cameras. Ms. Hecht has honed in on Esther Franz and manages to project all of her — the love she feels for the man she married, the frustration his attitudes bring on occasion, the guilt she feels over the failures she has felt as a mother. The involuntary brushing aside a wandering curl, the sudden sharp pain that she feels in her head when her disappointments pile up on her, the joy she feels suddenly when her husband and brother in law seem to be finding common ground. It’s all there, turning a supporting role into a star turn.
Danny DeVito is a revelation as Gregory Solomon, the furniture dealer. Hiding behind a voluminous beard and dark glasses, he has left behind all traces of his trademark wise guys like the taxi man in the series that established him, and he has created a maddening yet lovable old man with deep roots in Mother Russia, some new ones from the lower east side of Manhattan, with traces of the elegant worlds of London and Paris where he has visited, and from where he has brought home some new attitudes and body english as well. His energy and his colorful readings bring great vitality to the long first act, and the occasional flash of lightning to the second act, most of which he must spend in the next room, leaving the Franz brothers to (try to) work out their life long antagonisms.
How they do it, or don’t do it, is in Arthur Miller’s very capable hands. I’ve only seen one other production of this play, the original one, but I found this outing far more fruitful. It moves this slightly lesser known play into the category above, the one in which those three hits as well as A View From The Bridge belong. I do believe Arthur Miller would have loved this production. I certainly did.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.