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The Taper’s “The Price”: The play may have issues, but the acting’s a treat

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller's The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller’s The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It depends on what matters to you in a theatrical production as to whether Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at the Mark Taper Forum will meet or disappoint your expectations. If you enjoy watching peak-quality actors create and run around in characters created by one of the rarest talents of the 20th century, you’re in for a treat. If you’re looking for greatness in the script itself, well, there is a reason “The Price” isn’t the play which trips off the tongue at mention of Miller’s name.

The tale has two vastly differing segments, divided by an intermission. Both take place in the apartment of a once-influential, rich man who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Now, in the mid-sixties, he has died, his whole apartment building is due to be razed, and his sons – one the disappointed career cop who helped to support him, the other a successful surgeon who left him behind – must either take or sell what remains of his household goods.

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The first segment is high on a kind of practical comedy, as Walter, the cop, must joust both with is frustrated wife and with the clever, if ancient Gregory Solomon – the furniture appraiser he has called to bid on the apartment’s contents. The second opens raw wounds, as the surgeon, Victor, appears radiating a sense of command and of the rightness of his more youthful actions. Through it all, Walter’s wife underscores the importance of money in all of this, and in her evaluation of them both.

The true star of the Taper production is Alan Mandell, whose Solomon radiates with the practical combination of earnest wisdom and manipulative coercion which makes for a good salesman. He makes the comedy this character represents organic to the play, a seamlessness far harder than it looks.

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd gives Walter the earnest solidity one expects from a lifelong cop and the seething resentment of a man who feels forced to abandon his own dreams by those who would not abandon theirs. Sam Robards’ Victor embodies the confidence of a man broken by his own success, yet still radiating with an inner focus which makes him appear unbending even as he reaches out. Kate Burton, as the disappointed Esther, makes her a dreamer with practical roots, trying hard to find meaning in a life she did not choose.

Matt Saunders’ surreal yet fascinating set design allows the stage area to shrink into a tiny space where all the characters collide not only with themselves but with the dead father whose innate presence and actions are the elephant in the room. Director Garry Hynes acts as choreographer, moving characters in and out of center focus with the precision of a gavotte, and keeping the whole thing both earnest and to some extent underplayed – a great way to feel the tensions rise.

Still, “The Price” as a play has its flaws, seeming almost two one-acts kind of sewn together. Even so, the performances are so strong they become worth the adventure all by themselves. In particular, a chance to catch Mandell is particularly worth the trip. Last seen at the Taper in “Waiting for Godot,” in a part he originated for Samuel Beckett, he is a remarkable talent proven over an 80-year acting career.

What: “The Price” When: Through March 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Worth the Waiting: a glorious “Waiting for Godot” at the Taper

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in the Mark Taper Forum's excellent "Waiting for Godot" (photo: Craig Schwartz)

Back in the early 1980s, I was substituting in a local high school when a young lady I knew dashed in. “I have five minutes before my next class. Can you explain ‘Waiting for Godot’ to me?” I can tell that story in almost any company and have people laugh. Even those who don’t know “Waiting for Godot” know enough about it to consider the question ridiculous. Indeed, playwright Samuel Beckett, in keeping with the absurdism which crept into theater with this play, absolutely refused to do any explaining of the thing himself.

The play is, essentially, about waiting – a waiting where, as the first line pronounces, “Nothing can be done.” Often times, this becomes a tedious exercise in that process, but not at the Mark Taper Forum. There an exquisite production elevates the play to something like a wry dream – an essential look at human character, and the elemental humor and pathos of existence.

Central to this success are the duo of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, whose connection as the waiting men Estragon and Vladimir becomes a living thing. Their constant intertwining of line, of mood and even of whimsy gives an energy to the piece. This, in turn, keeps one connected to character and content in a play which has lots of both in place of a plot.

The tale, such as it is, is of two men – longtime wanderers – who have been told they must wait for the arrival of a man named Godot in a rather bleak spot on the landscape. So, they wait. Each day, as it ends, a boy (LJ Benet) arrives to say Godot will come tomorrow without fail. It is a fool’s waiting, but it is required, and so this is what the men do. The owner of the land harumphs by, accompanied by a nearly animalistic slave. Still, the men wait.

Hugo Armstrong’s beastly, inarticulate and beleaguered Lucky and James Cromwell’s worldly and pompous Pozzo add to the mood and tone with a fascinating and disturbing physicality. Still it is Mandell’s sighing, fatalistic Estragon and McGovern’s negotiating, honor-bound Vladimir who make the piece as compelling as it is. The tight and active direction of Michael Arabian keeps the thing from devolving, as it sometimes has, into a kind of costumed panel discussion. That vitality proves key.

So does the absolutely remarkable, Dadaist set by John Iacovelli and by Brian Gale, whose projections and lighting effects tie in with the set itself brilliantly. Indeed, be sure you are seated early enough to see the Dali-like shadows which play upon the backdrop before the show begins. It sets just the tone necessary to start sweeping the audience into the mood.

I will admit leaving the theater gleeful. This production is what I always hoped “Waiting for Godot” could be. One thinks of those exceptional plays and playwrights who have arrived since (Suzan-Lori Parks and her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Top Dog/Underdog” come particularly to mind) and been given permission to have characters exist and be explorable, rather than having to live inside a story line. The legacy of this play cannot be overstated. It is a delight to go back and see, in such a powerful production, that initial inspiration.

As for the student who asked me to explain the unexplainable in five minutes, so long ago? The answer was – obviously – no. I have no idea how the essay she was supposed to write in her next class came out, but she was furious at not having a definitive answer. Don’t expect one from me now, either. That’s for you to explore for yourself, after you go see this particularly articulate incarnation of the thing.

And you should go. It would be difficult to find a better rendition.

What: “Waiting for Godot” When: Through April 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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