Michael Brown, scenic designer for the current Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's The Price, wasn't even born when the 1968 play was first produced on Broadway. Nor for that matter were the rest of the design team members--costume designer Laurie A. Churba, sound designer Jerry M. Yager, and lighting designer Rui Rita (who, at 30, was the oldest member of the design team). Says Brown, "It was kind of an extraordinary experience to tech a Broadway show and look around and see a bunch of twentysomethings."
The relatively youthful age of the design team adds an interesting dynamic to a play that is concerned with the relationship between two estranged middle-aged brothers. The two meet after many years on the top floor of their late father's Upper West Side brownstone, surrounded by mounds of dark wood furniture their father accumulated during his lifetime.
In a play that asks the audience to follow its shifting point of view (whose version of the past most accurately portrays the father?), the audience is also confronted with Brown's design: huge, exaggerated piles of furniture ominously surround the brothers. So as not to distract from the entrance of actor Jeffrey DeMunn, who plays one of the sons, Brown and the crew rehearsed the timing of his entrance and the music and light cues to find the right balance.
"As I read the play and imagined the world that this furniture had collected in over a lifetime," says Brown, "it struck me as a very delicate space that needed to teeter on the edge of--I don't know if permanence is an appropriate word--but it felt as though on the one hand the furniture is the fifth character of the play. Very clearly it's the father onstage, and I wanted the attic to feel as though at any moment the wind could come in and blow the furniture away."
Brown and director James Naughton both felt strongly that the staircase should be a central image: "By bringing that staircase up through the floor and creating an island, they could walk around and weave their way through the piles of furniture." The designer also left gaps in the floorboards so that light could shine from below: "It played along with the idea of the space floating over the clouds," he says.
Brown's design also includes a stained-glass window "floating" above a circular staircase placed in the middle of the stage floor. Another fragile piece, the window also suggests "opulence" and "luxury," Brown says, two qualities the brownstone possessed until the father lost the family's money in the crash of 1929.
This revival of Miller's play was originally produced last August at the Williamstown Theatre Festival before the producers and Naughton moved it to the Royale Theatre, bringing the original design team along with them. In addition to getting to work on his first Broadway show, Brown found the Royale to have a shallower and wider stage "so the playing space became more intimate and scaled to a human. It wasn't as cavernous as the theatre [at Williamstown], and it really helped me keep the action down in the apron and push the actors out front."
The overall effect may have had a weightless quality to it, but the individual pieces were "nailed and screwed and bolted and lashed," the designer says. The production rented the inventory from Williamstown and rented or bought pieces from SUNY New Paltz, rental houses, and antique stores. One of the latter is a New Jersey store, Anything but Costumes, which is, according to Brown, "simply extraordinary. There are about four double-decker cow barns," he describes, "that the owners have filled with a remarkable collection of antique furniture. It's mind-boggling: you walk in these cow barns and you have rows and rows of high-quality antique furniture." Brown acknowledges the contribution of Harian Silverstein, production properties, who "did a really remarkable job in terms of getting inside my head as the designer and understanding the style of all this stuff I was looking for. He understood the idea that it wasn't necessarily about each individual piece, and it was more about the whole and the picture that one would create by putting so much stuff onstage." Brown also has raves for technical supervisor Gene O'Donovan ("tremendously helpful and mentoring in the process"), Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc., which constructed any scenery that had to be built, and the crews ("wonderfully helpful, and I never felt stranded").
Next up for Brown: designing Angels in America for his alma mater, Brown University, in April and Side Man for Philadelphia Theatre Company in May. This summer, he will also most likely return to Williamstown, where he is the resident design supervisor.