Retirement is painless for actor Allan Arbus. In fact, the veteran of an 11-year hitch on television's "MASH" says it has been a delight.
But nearing his 83rd birthday, Arbus, after a year out of action, has set aside music-filled days of leisure to play one last part he could not resist. He will be Gregory Solomon, the extraordinary 89-year-old furniture dealer in Arthur Miller's "The Price."
"This is hell, but I'm not sorry," Arbus said before a recent rehearsal for the Laguna Playhouse production, which begins previews Tuesday before opening on Saturday.
Arbus is a small, sharp-featured man with a scruff of beard, a thick, curly head of hair, and a refined and deliberate way of speaking--not exactly guarded, but precise and considered. He was not confessing to strain or second thoughts; it's just that rehearsals were at what he calls the "awkward stage" before costumes, scenery and decisions on how the actors will move onstage have been worked out to give a clear picture of what will emerge.
"The Price," first seen in 1968 and revived last year on Broadway, is crafted like a sturdy, well-designed piece of furniture--perhaps not unlike some of the prime items Solomon covets in the attic full of long-abandoned stuff that provides the play's setting and triggers its action.
Estranged brothers Victor and Walter Franz have come to dispose of the hoard of furnishings that belonged to their father. The market crash of 1929 had cost him his fortune and his will to keep working and striving. To support his father, Victor sacrificed a chance to pursue his passion for science. Now the middle-aged New York City cop is stuck in mediocrity, boredom and resentment, and is losing the respect of his money- and status-obsessed wife. Walter, unencumbered by any sense of responsibility to the family, has gone on to become a wealthy, accomplished surgeon.
Reunited after 16 years, the brothers dig uneasily through their past until the price each has paid for his choices becomes plain. This happens as they wrangle over the price that Solomon, the dealer, should receive for the load of furniture.
No mere engine of plot, Solomon is a humorous, insightful, sympathetic yet ultimately helpless onlooker as the unresolvable family turmoil plays out. He also stands, in contrast to Victor and Walter's father, as a life force who never gives up, having picked himself up after each knockdown through a long life of struggle.
Now he yearns to answer the bell for one more round. "I love to work," Solomon says. He has been moldering in a solitary retirement but wants desperately to close a deal for the attic's contents so he can work again.
Arbus says Miller's stage direction introducing Solomon distills why the character is worth coming out of retirement to play: "Enter Gregory Solomon. In brief, a phenomenon."
"He is very clever, sort of an actor himself," Arbus says. "He's very intelligent, he's very funny, he's not without human feeling, and the way he disarms and seduces people he's dealing with I just found fascinating."
Director Richard Stein offered the part to Arbus without an audition. At first, the actor hesitated because of a scheduling conflict. But he reread the play, which he never has seen, and grabbed what he says is "a role of a lifetime."
Make that a role of half-a-lifetime. Arbus didn't start acting full time until he was 51. Before that, he was an A-list fashion photographer. He emerged during the late 1940s shooting for magazines in a close working partnership with his wife, Diane Arbus. After they separated in 1959, she went on to do landmark work, making pictures that cast a stark, revealing, but deeply human eye on midgets, freaks, nudists, transvestites, Down syndrome patients and others on society's fringes.
They met when he was a low-level, 18-year-old employee in the advertising department of a big New York City department store. Diane Nemerov was the owner's daughter.
"She came in and announced that she was very well-read," Arbus recalls of their first meeting at the store. "It just knocked me on my heels. It seemed such an amazing thing for a 13-year-old child to say."
Arbus remained close to her after their split, according to Patricia Bosworth's 1984 biography, "Diane Arbus." Suffering from poor health and depression, Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971.
After "The Price," Arbus plans a trip to New York to sift through some photos with Doon, the oldest of his three daughters, who is mounting a massive Diane Arbus exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art scheduled for September 2003.
Arbus says he yearned to be an actor from his early teens, when he had a moment of special clarity while playing in a student production at DeWitt Clinton High School.
"I realized there were a thousand people in the auditorium, and everybody in that auditorium was in sync. It was a feeling of unity which I'd never experienced."