NEW YORK — The divergent results on Broadway for a pair of four-character family plays by American masters — Arthur Miller’s “The Price” and Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” — reveal what happens when classic work is undermined by overly aggressive meddling. In the former instance, the director paints inspirationally along the grain and the production’s essential elements fall absorbingly into place. In the latter, the director begins with the assumption that the script serves him, and everything falls apart.
The far better outcome occurs with “The Price,” which had its official opening Thursday night at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre. Under Terry Kinney’s stewardship, a gold-plated cast — Mark Ruffalo, Jessica Hecht, Tony Shalhoub and Danny DeVito — fulfills its mission in grand fashion, illuminating the insidious interplay of love and money among two brothers and the younger brother’s wife. With the addition of a sensational DeVito, playing a wily old furniture dealer whose livelihood depends on rooking grief-stricken heirs, Kinney treats with respect both the text and the audience — and thereby delivers a perceptively embroidered portrait of a family rife with mercenary and other resentments.
No epiphanies at all, however, are permitted by director Sam Gold during his relentlessly contrived “Menagerie,” which opened last week at the Belasco Theatre. Here, it’s not just Laura’s treasured unicorn figurine that shatters. It’s the whole darn experiment. Ungenerously stripped of scenery, poetry and continuity, Williams’s 1945 drama is also here devoid of emotional clarity. Any newcomers you might have informed beforehand that they were about to see one of 20th-century American drama’s most celebrated achievements would be wondering afterward what you had been smoking.
Far be it for me — in most cases — to discourage looking at classic plays from new perspectives. Last season, director Ivo van Hove revealed in dazzling Broadway revivals of “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” that we’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities for animating the inchoate urges bubbling up in Miller’s plays. Van Hove seems to have an affinity for playing ebulliently with metaphor in Miller’s naturalistic style; that gift has not always served him as well with the tragic prescriptions of Greek drama: His modern “Antigone” with Juliette Binoche, for example, turned into an overindulgent muddle.
It does seem the height of arrogance to think that every play can be gutted like a house on HGTV. Gold, who has revealed a deft hand with contemporary plays (Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning “The Flick”), musicals (Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Tony-winning “Fun Home”), and even Shakespeare (“Othello” with David Oyewolo and Daniel Craig), seems to have a blind spot with playwrights with a more lyrical bent. His revival a few years ago at Roundabout of William Inge’s “Picnic” was a shallow disaster — to be matched only by his hollow “Menagerie.”
The choices are sometimes cosmetically clownish: the ridiculous, tasteless pink dress, for instance, that Sally Field’s hand-wringing Amanda wears to greet her daughter’s supposed Gentleman Caller (smoothly handled by Finn Wittrock). In other cases, they’re misguided — as in the casting of a hair-trigger-tempered Joe Mantello as the alienated narrator, Amanda’s son, Tom — and at still others, so distracting you’re taken completely out of the play. Gold has cast as Amanda’s withdrawn daughter, Laura, an actress with a serious disability that requires her to use a wheelchair. Laura is certainly meant to be shy to the point of reclusive. In better productions, though, it is Amanda’s relentless, contagious anxiety that renders Laura immobile; here that key dimension is missing, especially because Madison Ferris’s Laura conveys little more than ordinary pique at her mother’s monstrous hectoring.
I saw Sally Field play Amanda in an exceptional revival directed by Gregory Mosher at the Kennedy Center in 2004, so it’s clear she’s capable of a devastating performance. In Gold’s production, she seems tentative and lost, in all the wrong ways.
Kinney, a respected stage and TV actor, packages Miller’s 1968 “The Price” more conventionally, and after Gold’s “Menagerie,” it’s a relief. Taking place in the attic of a house once occupied by the father of Ruffalo’s Victor Franz and Shalhoub’s older brother Walter, the piece unravels the story of Victor, a New York cop whose limited salary and accomplishments are a disappointment to his wife, Esther (Hecht). Victor chose to give up the pursuit of a career in science to care of his father, a wreck after he lost all of his money. And once the impishly philosophical dealer played by DeVito enters, offering a modest sum for the father’s legacy — his furniture — the lifelong tensions between Victor and the more successful Walter explode.
The play too transparently shows its hand, especially in a rather didactic final scene: Victor is a little too noble; Esther a little too grasping; Walter a little too smug. But the actors are all adept at embodying and drawing out the countervailing traits and motivations in themselves and one another. It all makes for a taut and engrossing fraternal struggle. And then DeVito’s funny, magnetic presence pushes the enjoyment meter up to maximum.
The Price, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Terry Kinney. Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Sarah J. Holden; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; original music, Jesse Tabish. About 2 1/2 hours. Tickets: $69-$169. Through May 7 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42d St., New York. Visit roundabouttheatre.org or call 212-719-1300.
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Sam Gold. Set, Andrew Lieberman; costumes, Wojciech Dziedzic; lighting, Adam Silverman; sound, Bray Poor. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Tickets: $39-$149. Through July 2 at Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.