The Price -- At the Olney until September 41.

They may look harmless enough, but don't be fooled. Old men with twinkling eyes, expressive shrugs and Yiddish accents nearly always steal the show.

So it is with character-actor Jack Somack, whose portrayal of Gregory Solomon, the octogenarian furniture dealer, in the Olney Theater's presentation of Arthur Miller's "The Price" is lively enough to save an often wooden production.

Until Somack's comic entrance in thefirst act (the audience hears his hacking cough before he stumbles onstage), the show seems in danger of playing as grim as Miller's subject. The two-act production picks up steam with Somack's every apperance, and often seems to falter when he departs.

"The Price," which had its Broadway debut in 1968, treats the playwright's favorite theme, deftly handled elsewhere in "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons": What happens when the American Dream goes awry.

It concerns the meeting of two brothers, offspring of a prosperous Wall Streeter ruined by the big crash, at the sale of the family heirlooms in the attic of a Manhattan brownstone.

One brother, Victor Franz, is a soon-to-retire beat cop who, years before, had given up all hope of becoming a scientists, his life's love, to care for his embittered and immoblilzed father.

The other, Walter Franz, is a successful surgeon who, instead of sticking around at home, had taken the main chance and fulfilled his life's ambitions.

They haven't been in contact since their father's death 16 years before -- which sets the stage for a catharsis of blood and money.

Victor's wife Esther is witness, confessor and, at times, participant in this strange encounter.

Arthur Miller was never one for quick, punchy dialogue, preferring instead to have his characters speak monologues pregnant with meaning. Depending on the performance, a Miller play can, at best, resemble a group-encounter session or, at worst, a series of stump speeches.

The Olney's production of "The Price," directed by theatrical journeyman Leo Brady, falls somewhere in between.

Jack Knight handles the role of Victor too cautiously, often suggesting the character's pain with a tentative grimace when one expects him to weep. Terrence Currier as Walter is often flat and stiff, placing the emotional burden on his voice -- forte to express anger, piano for remorse -- instead of his body. Carol Teitel's Esther is spirited and sympathetic, but her performance seems out of kilter with the restrained renditions of her colleagues.

Too often, the actors don't seem to connect with one another or the audience. The presentation as a whole comes off as workmanlike -- actors doing their jobs on a stage -- rather than alive.

The exception is Somack, every bit the wizened raconteur, who can bring down the house, as he did opening night, simply by shelling a hard-boiled egg. And, happily, the actors plaoff one another better with Somack as a foil. No stranger to the role of Gregory Solomon (he played it at the Olney 10 years ago), Somack exudes an authority that comes of knowing his character not just intellectually, but emotionally. He makes "The Price" worthwhile.