Monday, March 27, 2017

Social Problem Plays: The Price and Sweat

Mark Ruffalo and Jessica Hecht in The Price at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Arthur Miller’s plays may have been inspired by Ibsen’s realist dramas, but he rarely seemed able to get at the great unresolvables beneath their well-made social-problem surface. They creak and they clang as the banalities slide into the grooves his dramaturgy has made for them – even when the ideas themselves haven’t always been thought through. (After all these years and God knows how many productions, I’m still not sure exactly what’s being indicted in Death of a Salesman, and, as for The Crucible, however much one might deplore HUAC and the blacklist, it wasn’t much like the Salem witch hunts. For one thing, as Elia Kazan’s wife Molly Day Thacher pointed out in a famous letter to Miller, there actually were Communists in show business.)

The Price, Miller’s last major play, first produced on Broadway in 1968 and currently in revival by the Roundabout Theatre, is particularly clunky. Two brothers meet in the attic of a Manhattan brownstone where Victor, the younger, took care of their father in the twilight years that followed the stock market crash and the death of his wife – two disasters from which, according to Vic, the old man never recovered. A talented scientist, Vic sacrificed his dreams of a research career and joined the police force in order to support him while his brother Walter went to medical school and on to a distinguished and affluent career. Now the building is being torn down and Victor is hoping to secure a good price for the antique furniture from an appraiser whose name he found in the phone book. He’s tried to contact his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade and a half and who hasn’t answered his calls. Just as he’s about to make a deal with the appraiser, Solomon, who’s something of an antique himself, Walter shows up in time for the first-act curtain, and the two brothers – as well as Victor’s wife Esther – learn, as the ten-ton ironies fall about the play’s title, just how high a price we pay for the choices we make in our youth. The second act of the play is mostly a long pitched battle between the estranged brothers, who spell each other with revelations and corresponding accusations. By the time the play is over, it’s long since turned into a very slow tennis match with hammers for rackets.

Mark Ruffalo and Danny DeVito. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Miller thinks he’s being even-handed, but it’s clear that he admires Victor and dislikes Walter, whose Freudian defense for his actions – that Vic has lied to himself for years, refusing to see how their father manipulated him into remaining at his beck and call, even though he must have suspected the old man had socked away money he could have used to send the boy to college – is much less persuasive than the simpler interpretation that Walter cared about no one but himself. From the opening of the play, when Esther pits her longing for a better life against Victor’s old-fashioned morality, it’s obvious what Miller thinks of a man who put his father’s needs above his own and who has spent his life in service to his community – and, by contrast, how he judges a man whose values are synonymous with those of American commerce. (I think it would be obvious even to someone who hasn’t read Death of a Salesman or All My Sons.)

The original production starred Pat Hingle, Arthur Kennedy, Kate Reid and Harold Gary as Solomon; George C. Scott, Barry Sullivan, Colleen Dewhurst and David Burns appeared in a 1971 television version. Terry Kinney’s revival offers the kind of cast you go to a Broadway show to see: Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub as Victor and Walter, Jessica Hecht as Esther, and Danny DeVito as Solomon. It’s beautiful to look at – the ubiquitous Derek McLane designed the poetic-realist set, David Weiner lit it, and the canny costumes are by Sarah J. Holden. And I’m certainly not sorry I caught it. Ruffalo and Hecht work together superbly, each creating a layered, intricately detailed and utterly lived-in character, constructing in tandem a complex relationship between two people who see the world differently and make different demands of life. As anyone knows who has been watching Ruffalo’s recent film and TV work (in Foxcatcher, The Normal Heart and Spotlight), he’s become one of the finest actors in the country; even ten years ago the gravitas he now regularly brings to his portrayals these days would have been inconceivable. Walking through the room he shared with his desiccated father in his young manhood, his Victor seems to be wandering among ghosts. Ruffalo can’t pull off the brothers’ long second-act quarrel, but I’m not sure who could. He fares better than Shalhoub, who lends the role of Walter some elegance and high style but who can’t transcend the play’s loathing of his character. As for DeVito, he gets his laughs, but what the hell is a Jewish vaudeville figure doing in Miller’s play? Solomon is transparently a plot device and a symbol, and every now and then he gives the squabbling brothers the benefit of his wisdom. (He’s almost ninety.) Perhaps Miller thought he could get away with using him to those ends if he didn’t even try to assimilate him into the realist style or the downbeat mood of the rest of the play. God knows it doesn’t work.

Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which opened at the Public last season and has now moved to Broadway, is a vibrant social-problem melodrama about the disenfranchising of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000. When management opts to outsource the bulk of the labor to Mexico, their employees face pay cuts, lay-offs and, when their union protests, a lock-out. The play revolves around three women, two white and one black, co-workers and best friends until one of them gets promoted to supervisor and crosses the labor-management line. The factory’s treatment of the workers tears apart these friendships and brings out the worst in the embittered employees, whose hatred of struggling immigrants for scabbing has an inevitable racist tinge.

Sweat has a strong first act, and the best thing about it is its complicated exploration of the role of race in the situation. It’s not restricted to the anger of the workers against the scabs, represented here by a young Cuban named Oscar (Carlo Alb├ín) who does menial work at the bar where they all hang out. Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) goes up for the promotion because she feels that for the first time in her life she can reach a plateau that’s historically been reserved for white people, but when she gets it her friend Tracey (Joanna Day) is resentful, sure that Cynthia was only singled out because she’s black. Their sons, Chris (Khris Davis) and Jason (Will Pullen), grew up as inseparable as their mothers, but when an act of violence sends them to prison Jason winds up in a white-supremacist gang.

The play is mostly a series of flashbacks; the frame is set in 2008, after Jason and Chris get out of jail, and those scenes are much less effective; they have an overstated, jangling quality. And in general act two isn’t as good as act one: it tends to degenerate into sentimental rhetoric, and the twist at the end is really cheap theatrics. (Also I think Sweat would be a better play if Nottage wrote with more specificity about life on the factory floor; she doesn’t even tell us what product the company turns out.) But the production, directed by Lynn Whoriskey on a striking, imaginative set by John Lee Beatty that’s vividly lit by Peter Kaczorowski, is gripping, with splendid performances. The cast also includes James Wilby as the bartender, Stan, and, fans of The Americans will be pleased to hear, Alison Wright, whose portrayal of Martha was one of the highlights of the series through last season. Wright plays Jessie, the other member of the trio of factory friends. In one scene Jessie waxes nostalgic over her late teens, when she and her friends planned to travel to the exotic hippie capitals of the world – names she can still recite long after the dream of visiting them has faded. It’s the best piece of writing in the play, and one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen on a stage in several years.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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