“Get down on your knees to remember what it’s like when the people
literally loom over you.” Roald Dahl
The suggestion that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Price, now playing on Broadway, are comparable might leave the impression that I am delusional. Or painfully simplistic. And I hardly expect that anyone will run out to see the two back-to-back as I did last week. But I did, and I am compelled to point out the commonalities. And I’m not stretching.
Obviously, the plays represent vastly differing worlds. Charlie is a musical based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl. It takes place on the streets of London and in a fantastical candy factory. The Price is a drama, written by the iconic American tragedian Arthur Miller. This one is set in a prewar New York apartment, about to be torn down. But they were written by left-leaning writers deep in the throes disillusionment. Each features a protagonist who has been victimized by the vagaries of economics. Both reflect a kind of nostalgia for a humanity that is all too rare in our greed-driven society.
What began my thinking process was the set of the current production of The Price, directed by Terry Kinney. In this iteration, designer Derek McLane has taken Miller’s hyper-real descriptions and created a surreal environment. The regal old world furniture of the bygone era of the family’s fortune flies suspended like memory over the action of the play. Memory is addled by time and perspective. We cannot trust it. But it dangles insistently, sometimes as a comfort but more often as a Damocles sword.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is entirely surreal. The play, with music and lyrics by Mark Shaiman and book by David Grieg, is set in the realm of the imagination. Memories mesh with wishes and become a kind of armor. Director Jack O’Brien and Designer Mark Thompson have kept the stage starkly simple. The audience must suspend disbelief and accept this world as a real possibility. Otherwise they miss the play’s fundamental truth. Without his fancy, Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell on the day I attended), might never see what life has to offer. Along with Charlie, we must reach out to worlds “not yet conceived, worlds that must be believed to be seen.”
Charlie is a member of a family so poor they eat rotten Brussels sprouts and make soup from moldy cabbage. His mother Mrs. Bucket (Emily Padgett), a widow, is responsible to feed an absurdly large number of mouths. She has no time or patience for the world of imagination that holds her son in its thrall. She wishes she were free to dream, but she’s been crushed by circumstance. Charlie’s four grandparents live in a single bed in the loft above the kitchen of their little flat. At first, none of them is able to leave that bed. The entire contingent seems cynical, resigned to their predicament, willing to remain prisoners of their poverty.
Grandpa Joe (John Rubenstein), Charlie’s paternal grandfather, is 96 and a half, “about as old as a man can be.” He worked for Willy Wonka when Wonka had nothing but a candy store and then became a security guard at the factory. But spies infiltrated the chocolate world and stole the recipes, forcing Wonka to fire everyone, including Mr. Bucket. Mr. Bucket is not bitter. He understands that his firing was a symptom of the company’s overall failure. And the company’s failure as a sign of the times.
As the story commences, Wonka (Christian Borle) has only just begun to recommence production of his most famous chocolate bar. The Golden Tickets he has hidden in the candy bars serve two purposes. They offer incentives for customers to try the candy and become fans. And they provide Wonka with an opportunity to seek out an honest person to inherit his legacy. He seems to be a man who will cheat even so sweet a boy as Charlie just to make a buck. But things are not as they seem.
In the current production, directed by Jack O’Brien, Charlie is a blithe spirit. He breezes through his troubles without resentment and greets his dismally accoutered world with unerring optimism. When he meets Willy Wonka disguised as a local candy store proprietor, he perceives a chance to be useful and subjugates his own burning desire for the Golden Ticket to the older man’s need for an assistant. He is not paid for his labor, and he never complains, even when a paycheck might enable him and his surreal coterie of bedridden forebears a decent meal. Wonka is a devious guy, squirrely, avaricious. But by the end of the play our suspicions about him are proved true: he’s a sensitive despot, a kind master. He manipulates fate a bit so that Charlie’s wishes can come true.
When Charlie finally finds a ticket after several unsuccessful attempts, he stands out among the winners as the only respectful, grateful presence in the group. Wonka has met him but in disguise and knows what to expect from Charlie, and Charlie does not disappoint. He is unfailingly concerned for the well-being of the others, and he is scrupulously honest and forthright. Charlie is the only contestant, whose eyes are not blinded by the grand prize.
He navigates every moment, present and cognizant of what is around him. He sincerely seeks to learn all there is to know about making chocolate, inventing new treats. He may be poor, but he has real soul. He has drive, but he is not driven to thwart others in his pursuit of his goals. He is a mensch. And this, we come to learn, is what Willie Wonka had hoped he would be. The meek shall inherit after all.
The Price protagonist Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) is walking collateral damage. His father lost everything in the Great Crash of 1929, and Victor’s future was compromised. He missed his chance to go to MIT and “be somebody.” But Victor never questioned his responsibility. He moved in with Dad, took care of him when he was incapacitated, and sacrificed his will to the needs of the older man. He may not be as jovial as Charlie, but he is no less circumspect. He understands what his choices were, and he has no regrets. He has served as a policeman, has raised a fine son, has never stopped loving his cynical, needy wife (Jessica Hecht).
Victor’s wife is endlessly dissatisfied with everything except her husband, to whom she is unerringly loyal. But she wants more than he has to offer. She begs him to sell the contents of his father’s house at an inflated price. She wishes to buy her way into a life she deems more suitable than that of a policeman’s wife. Knowing the antiques appraiser is on his way, she encourages Victor to embellish the worth of his father’s belongings, to lie about their provenance.
Victor’s older brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) also encourages the younger man to sell out to the highest bidder. Victor sees the inherent worth in the memories imbedded in his father’s furniture. Walter sees only the dollar value. He wants Victor to find a cutthroat appraiser/salesman, one who will fetch the highest price. There is no honor in memory, he insists. Only in wealth.
The appraiser Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito). is a possible agent of change not unlike Willy Wonka . Solomon, like Willy, is a purveyor of goods and seems to be out to take advantage of the honest man. But, like Wonka, Solomon appreciates the younger man’s honesty and his integrity. In the end, he enables Victor to keep his integrity, to remain faithful to his way of life. Victor will retain his Name. In an Arthur Miller play, the name is all.
It would be tempting to liken the productions on other levels. Danny DeVito,for example, making his Broadway debut, seems to have taken a few moves from Christian Borle’s play book. His Solomon is a Vaudeville version of Borle’s Commedia-based Wonka; both milk physical presence to augment the humorous irony of their characters. But that’s not the point.
We live in an era when most of us feel like Dahl’s intended audience. We are all “on their knees,” looking up at the giant fist of oligarchic power. Too many of us know what it is to be derided, as Victor is, for being satisfied with remaining in the economic middle class. We’ve felt the ridicule that Charlie endures for being poor. What makes both The Price and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so satisfying is that their heroes stand in and up for us. They show the world that right is might in all the ways that matter.
Best of all, neither Victor nor Charlie has lost his way. Neither has given in to the pressure to embrace the attitudes of those who perceive the un-rich as “losers.” Both have retained an innocence and a positivity that enables them to revel in their successes. By being good, honest people, they believed they would prevail. And despite encountering others whose greed and pride could undermine them, they do.