The curious thing about Arthur Miller's 1968 play "The Price", now at Olney Theatre, is that you feel Miller put his efforts into writing about the wrong characters.
It is, nevertheless, a diverting work. And in the current production, which continues through Sept. 14, there is one rip-roaring performance that makes it well worth seeing.
The story, set in 1967, involves two middle-aged brothers who have avoided each other since their father died 16 years earlier. One, New York police sergeant Victor Franz, dropped out of college to care for the father, who never recovered emotionally after losing a fortune in the 1929 crash. The other, Walter, broke away to become a wealthy doctor.
For those 16 years, the father's outmoded though once-costly furniture has sat untouched in his apartment. Now the building is to be torn down, and the furniture must be sold. The policeman's wife -- keenly played by Carol Teitel -- sees the potential money as a way for her husband to escape the job he has never liked.
Though the doctor contributed almost nothing to his father's care, the policeman feels the need to invite him to the sale since the furniture is half his.
From this premise, Miller unfolds a drama of lives wasted not by outside forces but by the character's own self-delusions. The policeman struck with his father, but was that necessary? The brother sought a career in "science," but opted for running three profitable nursing homes. Recriminations abound. There is a hint of reconciliation, but even that fails.
Still, as the play progresses, it's not their lives we really become interested in. It's that of an outsider, the 89-year-old used furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon, who is played with immense warmth and humor by Jack Somack.
If the somewhat outdated "Price" sometimes verges on tedium, it is Somack -- wheezing at the top of the stairs or casting an approving eye at the policeman's still-attractive wife, Esther -- who always comes to the rescue.
Olney considers "The Price" to be a tragedy, but when Somack is on stage -- and he is for much of the time -- you might mistake it for a Neil Simon comedy. The lines are funny and frequent, and Somack -- whose screen credits include the harried husband in Alka Seltzer's "spicy meatball" commercial -- gives them their due.
Solomon is everything the Franz brothers are not. He is a survivor -- of four wives, several revolutions in six countries and countless financial reverses. At 89, he still relishes his work. His only worry is that if he purchases the old furniture, he may not be around long enough to sell it all.
From Solomon, there is much to learn of living life. From the Franz family, not much. Their anguished inability to improve the conditions of their own lives seems peculiarly dated in our self-help era.
Perhaps not all of the fault is the play's. Jack Knight as the policeman and Terrence Currier as the doctor look the roles and do a fine job with them, but they never are compelling.
And a contemporary viewer can't help thinking: Why don't you guys work your problems out over a beer someplace, and let's hear some more from the furniture dealer.