Thanks to his 40 years of work in movies and on TV — and his uniquely gnome-like, non-leading-man qualities — Danny DeVito is a performer with probably close to 100 percent name recognition. Me and you and everyone we’ve ever met know DeVito, whether from Taxi or Twins or Batman Returns or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And yet the actor is strangely underappreciated for his extraordinary comic timing, humongous heart, and inimitable presence. His unforgettable performance in Arthur Miller’s The Price is serious reminder that DeVito belongs in the pantheon of greats. His supporting role — and the 72-year-old’s Broadway debut — completely steals the spotlight in this wobbly revival of one of Miller’s (deservedly) lesser-known plays about American male remorse and angst.
Directed by Steppenwolf veteran Terry Kinney and unfolding onstage at the American Airlines Theatre in real time, The Price takes place entirely on the top level of a dilapidated New York City apartment. The year is 1968 and the large front room is crammed floor-to-ceiling with furniture that would have been considered antique even in that era. Set designer Derek McLane has impressively stuffed the stage with chairs, sofas, lamps, chandeliers, armoires, dressers, an old harp — all stuff about to be sold off by the embittered NYPD cop Victor (Mark Ruffalo) before the building is knocked down. The apartment belonged to Victor’s Depression-era father, now deceased, and much of the play’s thrust involves the reopening of wounds between Victor, his wife, Esther (Jessica Hecht), and his estranged brother, Walter (Tony Shalhoub).
Of those three actors, Shalhoub succeeds most at suggesting a real life behind Miller’s verbal firecrackers. Ruffalo, flat and terribly miscast as a schlub, replaced John Turturro while the play was in rehearsals — and the result, despite Ruffalo’s considerable talent, is as ill-fitting as if Turturro had replaced him in The Avengers. Yet there’s no question about where your eyes will look whenever DeVito enters, playing an 89-year-old Jewish appraiser named Solomon who arrives to buy all the furniture. Miller ostensibly wrote the role as comic relief — Solomon’s wry, vinegary observations about the world are coated with a con man’s gloss — yet the playwright’s big mistake was in focusing the material on three other dullard characters when Solomon is obviously such an original creation.
DeVito, his hair and beard stark white and his voice carrying a lilt of Yiddish, remedies this somewhat with his rich, histrionic, ultimately very touching performance, especially when Solomon speaks about a daughter who died by suicide. He is a mighty force in the first act, often swinging his weight around the stage, delivering know-it-all pronouncements, or, more interestingly, listening and observing the other characters, like a fly on the wall. Due to the character’s excitability and age, he spends much of the second act in an offstage bedroom, while the play pivots towards the dark family squabble. But as that story drags on, you’ll be watching that bedroom door — waiting and hoping for DeVito’s dazzling, unpredictable presence to burst through and make this production worth its title. B