“We never were anything. We were always about to be,” Esther Franz (Kate Burton) says to her cop husband, Victor (Sam Robards), as they stand in a mid-1960s Manhattan attic, surrounded by stacks of burnished bureaus. The elegance of yesteryear reflected in the finely carved wood (Matt Saunders did the stately set design) belonged to Victor’s now deceased father, who lost most of his wealth in 1929. This pile of furniture — along with the odd evening gown, fencing blade and rowing oar — is all that’s left of the erstwhile Franz estate.
Victor wants to sell it all to aging but spry antiques dealer Gregory Solomon (Alan Mandell), but he and Esther have money troubles, and she's worried that her husband is essentially giving it away. Then Victor’s brother, Walter (John Bedford Lloyd), a successful surgeon to whom he hasn’t spoken in 16 years, shows up halfway through the transaction, further complicating the disposal of inheritance.
It’s at this point that Arthur Miller’s rarely revived play picks up and dives headlong into the painful nooks and crannies of the human psyche. Bruised egos, bitter grudges and guilty apologies obscure the layers of truth that are unpacked slowly, leaving us to question the veracity of what really happened in this family. The engagement fostered by the characters’ subjective memories is further enhanced by Garry Hynes’ understated but nuanced direction, mining comic relief from the amazing Mandell at the right times, and weaving a tense dynamic between the brothers.
Lloyd balances the easy air of wealth with an honest desire to mend fences, while Robards carries the pride and stress of an elevated mind trapped in a working-class body. Burton feistily insinuates herself as pragmatist and peacemaker, while Mandell’s quiet humor and wisdom hint at the deceased patriarch, whose presence, courtesy of Hynes' cleverly placed empty armchair, remains center-stage throughout.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through March 22. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org
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