A View From The Bridge, one of Arthur Miller’s most popular plays, has been on Broadway four times before, most recently just five years ago, starring Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson in an impressive Broadway debut.
But it’s safe to say that the new View, at the Lyceum, is unlike any staged before, mostly for better, but also a bit for worse. The intense performance by Mark Strong, making his Broadway debut, supported by the rest of the outstanding cast, makes this View worth viewing, but the powerful acting is not what makes this production distinct from previous versions. It’s the direction by Ivo van Hove.
The Belgian-born avant-garde director is making his Broadway debut, but he has been an increasing fixture in New York theater over the past several years, responsible for last season’s breathtaking adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, as well as a reinterpreted, Dutch-language version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. This season, he is directing at least four plays in New York, including a Broadway revival in February of Miller’s The Crucible, and the much-anticipated new musical by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, Lazarus, at the New York Theater Workshop.
van Hove has not changed the plot of A View From The Bridge, which was inspired by a true story that Arthur Miller heard from a labor activist and lawyer while doing research in the then-tough waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where in the 1950’s most everybody was Italian American and worked the docks. (As he wrote in his memoir Timebends: “Out of it would come a movie script (never to be produced); a play, A View from the Bridge, and a trip to Hollywood, where I would meet an unknown young actress, Marilyn Monroe…”)
Catherine (Phoebe Fox) is an orphan who has grown up in the Red Hook home of her dead mother’s sister, Beatrice (Nicola Walker, whom I adore as Gillilan in the TV series Last Tango in Halifax), who is married to Eddie Carbone (Strong), a longshoreman. Beatrice’s cousins from Italy, the brothers Marco (a suitably menacing Mark Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey, best-known on these shores for playing Jonathan Groff’s boss and lover in Looking), enter the country illegally to find work, and move in with the Carbones.
Catherine and Rodolpho fall for one another, a development that Eddie finds intolerable. Why he finds it intolerable is clear to everybody – he has sexual yearnings for his surrogate daughter – except for Eddie himself, who instead questions Rodolpho’s motives, and becomes increasingly enraged by their love. The neighborhood lawyer Alfieri (Michael Gould), who narrates the play like a one-man Greek chorus, makes clear from his opening monologue that this will lead to tragedy; he tells us he was powerless to do anything as he watched the tale “run its bloody course.”
The director has staged this story with brutal abstraction, shorn of period details, props and backdrops, and even shoes: All the actors are barefoot. Designer and frequent van Hove collaborator Jan Versweyveld has created a set that evokes a boxing ring, if a boxing ring were ringed with Plexiglas. A big boxy black sheath rises from the ring at the outset of the play and descends two intermission-less hours later. Audience members sit in rows at either end of this ring (much as they did in the very not avant-garde Rocky.) The incessant musical underscoring is of the ping-ping-ping variety (with snippets of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem Op. 48 repeated incessantly.)
All this aggressive staging has provoked passionate and opposing reactions. Some have praised van Hove’s direction to the hilt as stripping the play down to the essence of Greek tragedy. But, given that spectacle was one of Aristotle’s six essential elements of tragedy, I doubt he’d find much to admire in, say, costume designer An D’Huys’ deliberately bland 21st century street clothes.
There is some real irony in this stripping down, since the original Broadway production of A View from the Bridge, a one-act in 1955, was a flop that only became success two years later, when Miller rewrote it as two acts, and it was staged in London under the direction of Peter Brook, who added extra cast to portray the disapproving Red Hook neighbors. It was important, the creative team believed, to provide the context of the neighborhood, making clearer the motivation of the characters.
The new production, which also originated in England (at the Young Vic), has transferred intact to a theater that is a 15-minute subway ride from Brooklyn, the supposed setting of the play. Yet, dialect coach Kate Wilson must not have been given much time to work with the actors, since the accents don’t just vary from actor to actor, but within the same actors from scene to scene.
On the other hand, there are those who completely dismiss this production, knocking the director’s choices as pretentious and disrespectful of Miller’s script. But the director’s choices in casting seem just right. For once, Catherine really does seem to be a teenager, and it helps immeasurably that she is about half the size of the hulking Strong, which makes his role as the surrogate father far more believable – and his violation of that role all the more unspeakable.
Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, in other words, works — whether because of van Hove’s deliberately new wave noodling, or despite of it. Any production whose cast so engages the audience with the playwright’s words pays the ultimate respect to the playwright.
A View from the Bridge is on stage at the Lyceum Theatre (149 W 45th St New York, NY 10036, west of Sixth Avenue ) through February 21, 2016.
Tickets and details
A View from the Bridge . Written by Arthur Miller; Directed by Ivo van Hove . Cast: Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, Nicola Walker as Beatrice, Phoebe Fox as Catherine, Michael Zegen as Marco and Michael Gould as Alfieri . Scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld . Costume design by An D’Huys . sound design by Tom Gibbons.
Of note: DCTS reviews van Hove’s production of Antigone with Juliette Binoche