The deceptions between American fathers and sons were an Arthur Miller specialty — see "Death of a Salesman" now at Ford's Theatre if you need reminding — and two middle-aged brothers hash it out over dad and the Depression in Miller's 1968 "The Price." The ghost in the room is the old man, long gone but still haunting the boys as they blame each other for their miseries and point angrily at their father's empty easy chair.
That blame game grows long and soggy in the hyperemotional second act of Arena Stage's new production, but director Seema Sueko's show has several enjoyable weapons to keep you involved in Miller's big, engrossing play. The star slot belongs to Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old used-furniture dealer who arrives to buy everything stockpiled in the family attic, and Linden's got the impish fizz to bring this amusing man to life.
Miller knew salesmen, and Solomon's a beauty: he charms, he jokes and he philosophizes as he nibbles a hard-boiled egg from his briefcase. Solomon brings laughter and light to a drama that's full of heavy showdowns, and while Linden still seemed to be settling in occasionally as of Thursday's opening, mostly the role fits him like a soft leather glove. Of course the guy who played Barney Miller in one of TV's smarter sitcoms knows how to drop dry punchlines into the prevailing inanity.
The 86-year-old Linden also knows how to gently sound notes of time and loss, which elsewhere in this performance bang like gongs. "The Price" is, of course, a reckoning: It's about Victor Franz, a highly moral middle-class cop whose brother, Walter — a wealthy doctor — seems to have waltzed away with the siblings' better opportunities. Victor's wife, Esther, is sick of his noble self-sacrifice. She sees Walter's comfort and wants it.
The furniture, splendidly realized in the dozens of vintage pieces of Wilson Chin's set, is the bitter past and the hopeful future: There's money to be made from it. But first the brothers have to settle old scores. They haven't spoken in years.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is another of Sueko's assets; his earthy, blunt style feels exactly right as Victor. Ebrahimzadeh channels the character's intelligence and good-guy ethics lightly, which is pivotal if you're going to keep Miller's play from feeling like a righteous harangue.
The show plows right into that trap in the second act. The play, artfully written as a single long conversation in that attic, shrewdly reverses several times and keeps you guessing about where the real culpability lies for Victor's "failure" — sacrificing his own ambitions to take care of his father during the 1930s Depression. It's an American values play, but the raw outbursts of the performance made the audience uncomfortable at times. So intent is the show on purging personal emotion that Ebrahimzadeh and Rafael Untalan eventually crouch and bellow at each other as they seek new levels of soul-baring.
Untalan is a notably vulnerable Walter, making good sense of the wealthy character's emotional fragility and brittle armor. Pearl Sun, in a money-green suit as Esther, is persuasively frustrated as Victor's wife, and she shares some touching, intimate moments with Ebrahimzadeh. The play, which you might expect to find on one of Arena's bigger stages, is sized right in the 200-seat Kogod Cradle, with its woven wooden walls wrapping around the family attic. But except when Linden's wily Solomon coyly interjects, the passions could be better governed to keep the audience alert to Miller's logic as these midcentury characters tally the decades of their bitter give-and-take.
The Price, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Seema Sueko. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lights, Allen Lee Hughes; sound design, Roc Lee. Through Nov. 12 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Tickets: $40-$111, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.