It’s a miracle this play exists. The Oscar-winning 1954 movie On the Waterfront, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, has reached iconic status as a Mob violence flick about an ex-prizefighter turned labor leader.
So why did Schulberg re-do his masterpiece? In his own words (from the “Introduction” to a copy of his play), he wanted his play “to cut a lot closer to the bone.” It ran for 8 performances on Broadway in 1995. Knocked down but not out, Schulberg re-wrote the play in 2001.
Director Kathleen Akerley delivers a knockout punch to Schulberg’s final rewrite with a relevant-to-today, memorable production about the spiritual struggle between right and wrong.
Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden provides a minimalistic set: a modified thrust stage represents a pier; an upstage platform becomes the tenement rooftop where Joey Doyle (Tyler Herman) tends his flock of pigeons. Three black fedoras hover over opened, front-page newspapers, suspended above empty ladder-back chairs. Several longshoremen crawl up from under the platform; a chilling action of men clawing their way out of a watery grave. The piped-in syncopated rhythm of drums and bongos adds ominous excitement.
Welcome to Akerley’s impressionistic opening that enhances Schulberg’s naturalistic play. It’s the story of the dark side of unions and those who dare to oppose them. Crony-capitalism rules the wharf. Those selected to work through the “shape-up” system are not the most experienced or qualified. Hires are made on the basis of kickbacks to the racketeers. Whistle-blowers who rebel are sent to the bottom of the sea. The dockworkers are damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t against their Mob-connected, union boss, Johnny Friendly, superbly enacted with nuance and convincing menace by Bruce Alan Rauscher, who leans on anyone brave enough to testify before the Crime Commission. Doyle, well-liked by the dock workers, has agreed to do just that, and was pushed off the roof; his murder made to look accidental.
Ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy (Jack Powers), whose brother Charley is Friendly’s mouthpiece, is guilt-stricken. It was he who unwittingly caused Doyle’s death. Edie Doyle, Joey’s sister, (Caitlin Shea) represents a Greek chorus of public opinion with her needling, “Who killed Joey?” Father Barry (Matt Dewberry), the conscience-tormented priest, suspects he knows the answer. His ambitious superior, Father Vincent, (Rauscher in a second role), will do anything not to make waves.
“Where do we draw the line between naked self-interest and responsibility to our fellow beings?” Schulberg asks in his 2001 edition. His 1950’s Hollywood film, that ends somewhat hopeful and upbeat, didn’t tell it all. So the reformer-screenwriter, once an idealistic Communist who left the Party because of its suppression of artistic freedom, slaps us awake by getting the last word.
First, Schulberg adds an embedded journalist, the Reporter (Graham Pilato). Allegedly this character is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Malcolm Johnson, who exposed Mob tactics in a newspaper series that temporarily changed local unions. The Reporter personifies the potential power of the press and offers hope.
Akerley makes full use of Pilato, who rises from the audience and hovers on the sidelines throughout. Trained as a clown, he plays the cynical embedded journalist with a bemused flamboyance that is engaging, and enlightening. “I made mental notes on what was going on, so I could file it later,” he tells us. He is the objective commentator, who describes the brutal way the longshoremen are assigned in the ultra-competitive “Shape-ups.” The hiring boss throws work tabs on the ground and the men fight like chickens for them.
This version of On the Waterfront radically shifts the focus from Terry, the conflicted boxer, to the wholesome priest working the mean streets. Father John Barry (Matt Dewberry), is the true labor leader, modeled after the real-life Father John Corridan, the Jesuit waterfront priest.
Dewberry delivers an impassioned performance. When he gives the last rites for another crime victim, Barry’s altruistic appeal to the callous longshoremen is heart-rending with the tagline: “If you do it to the least of Mine, you do it to Me.”
Schulberg’s clever, signature dialogue is still as fresh on stage as in the screenplay. And Akerley effectively lets it rip with quick pacing that saves this production from becoming bombastic and melodramatic. The wisecracking dockworkers and Mob henchmen (the ensemble handle all roles) lifts the gloom. “Maybe he could sing, but he couldn’t fly,” is uttered with delightful relish by actor Cyle Durkee as the goon, Truck.
And of course, film fans will recognize “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,” exchange between Terry and his brother, Charley. It may be unfair but comparison will be made with Elia Kazan’s direction of Marlon Brando at his peak in the famous taxi cab ride. Instead of underplaying the powerless prizefighter, Powers projects a solid resilience. It works. He is convincing as the fighter who keeps getting up after each knock-down. Trapped in a life that offers him no choice, his tragic flaw catches up with him. He threw a big fight, once, to stay alive; now, he can’t back down. He can’t fly away, like the pigeons, when he should.
About those paper pigeons: Bring your imagination. You’ll need it.That’s all I can say.
There are drawbacks to the larger than life acting style that occasionally lapses into too much. The drunken singing in the “wake” is unconvincing. We have to make allowance for the inexperienced actors who need to work on what it feels like to be drunk and play against it. (The UYouTube of Charlie Chaplin’s 1 A.M. is a good model to follow.) But, overall, the acting is effective enough to be believable.
The film has a Hollywood somehow-romantic-love-will-triumph ending. The play’s Epilogue leaves us with a sense of indignation and urgency. Schulberg, who died in 2009 at age 95, leaves us with an anguished plea spoken through Father Barry: against the cycle of evil that continues; the injustice has to stop. Schulberg’s outcry gets downright spiritual and cuts deep. Instead of “Do unto others before they do it to you,” we have to care about each other. If that’s the hoped-for answer, then The American Century Theater’s production has created something unique that’s well worth experiencing.
American Century Theater’s production of On the Waterfront runs thru April 28, 2012 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St, Arlington, VA.
On the Waterfront
By Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Produced by The American Century Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.
- Terry Ponick . Washington Times
- Genie Baskir . ShowBizRadio
- Jeanne Theismann . Connection.com
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
- Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
- Eric Denver . DCMetroTheaterArtsn