Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge was an experiment. Miller wanted to take the elements of Greek tragedy and focus them on a protagonist who is not a ruler or a great warrior, but instead is a common man.
Ivo van Hove’s award-winning production (three Olivier awards in London, two Tony awards on Broadway) takes this play that has traditionally been a realistic drama with stylized flourishes that suggest that comparison to Greek tragedy and pushes it toward greater abstraction.
The result is a wonderfully powerful and satisfying production that achieves Miller’s goal. More than in an earlier production of the play that I saw (Broadway, 1983, with Tony LoBianco in a Tony-nominated performance and DC’s Robert Prosky as Alfieri), and more than when I read the play-script, van Hove’s take achieves an eventual grandeur that honors Miller’s intention. More importantly, it (like the best productions of the Greeks) engages you viscerally, creating tension, even surprise, despite the fact that you know exactly where the story is headed.
In fact, halfway through the play (performed without intermission over two hours), the lawyer character Alfieri, who serves the purpose of the Greek chorus, talks about how he can foresee the story’s outcome after his first meeting with our tragic hero, Eddie Carbone.
(Before going further, let’s appreciate the fact that The Kennedy Center is hosting this tour — a rare tour of a straight play, awards notwithstanding. After The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was here last month, can one hope that the opportunities to see non-musicals travel outside of NYC are trending upward?)
The set (designed by Jan Versweyveld) isn’t realistic. There’s no furniture and no distinction between interior and exterior scenes. The actors are (mostly) barefoot, and (mostly) don’t change clothes over the course of the several months of the play’s action. (The costumes are designed by An D’Huys.) In those aspects, it’s like productions of Greek plays that I’ve seen. (Hell, it’s like productions of Greek plays that I’ve been in.)
Tom Gibbons’ sound design is portentous, mixing classical-sounding music with unsettling tones that underscore the action.
The pace of the expositional scenes is tight. This establishes the forward propulsion of the plot and underscores the inevitability of its resolution.
About halfway through, though, this brisk clip is broken by a wonderfully terse domestic scene that drips with tension. The power established then will not dissipate for the rest of the evening.
Like much of Miller’s work written during the McCarthy era, the plot of the play hinges on an act of informing on an otherwise decent person who has found himself on the wrong side of prevailing winds, and on the murky motives of the “stool pigeon.” The fact that the transgression here involves undocumented immigration makes this revival timely in a way that the production allows without emphasizing.
This production began at London’s Young Vic before it transferred to first the West End of London for a commercial run, and then to Broadway. (That Broadway run ended early this year.) This tour began in LA and features a different cast than the one that opened the play in New York.
The production is so impressive that it would be churlish, perhaps, to dwell on what is lost in this approach, but, on the other hand, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that.
The pace and the prevailing archness and hardness of the delivery left me wishing that certain scenes could have been allowed to breathe more, and that moments of softness and tenderness — which I believe Miller baked into the world of the play — were more in evidence here.
That said, when those moments do occur, they have a special power, and van Hove’s cast is uniformly strong.
Nevertheless, the momentum of the piece results in certain lines whizzing by when, to my ears, they were important enough that they would have escaped the mouth of the speaker or landed on the ears of the listener with greater force.
Frederick Weller, a very accomplished stage and indie-film actor, plays the protagonist, Eddie. He is slim and has the powerful build of a baseball player. (No surprise; I saw him play one in the original cast of Take Me Out).
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His thick Brooklyn accent and the briskness of the pace, however, keep a line like his “With your hair that way, you look like a Madonna” feeling more like an off-hand comment than the revelatory moment it could be.
The wonderful Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays Alfieri, has worked before with van Hove (most recently on The Crucible) and has collaborated with Daniel Fish, Michael Kahn’s former deputy at STC, on experimental work. (“Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray,” is, believe it or not, only the very beginning of a wickedly long title of something they did together. Either for reasons of space or of modesty, it’s not mentioned in his program bio.)
Ryan is terrifically powerful in the part. But why isn’t there a shift of energy from when he is addressing the audience directly into when he is walking into a scene proper?
It may well be that the colors I desired and found missing would have gotten in the way of what van Hove has otherwise accomplished here. I suspect not, but I can’t second-guess with any certainty, and I certainly appreciate what has been achieved.
And don’t get me wrong. Both actors mentioned above, and everybody in the cast, have stunning moments.
Weller’s performance is quite poignant when we finally see him understand that things have slipped beyond his emotional control. Ryan renders palpable the lawyer’s sense of impotence, and he beautifully states Miller’s case, made during the last few lines of the play, that attention must be paid to the man whose story we have just seen play out so tragically.
The scene between the young lovers (Catherine Combs and Dave Register) when they first find themselves alone together is a gem. Andrus Nichols (who was at Olney Theatre Center when it hosted her company Bedlam doing Hamlet and Saint Joan with a cast of four) brings earthiness and stature to Eddie’s long-suffering wife.
Howard W. Overshown (I remember him from The Dying Gaul at Source during the late 1990s, when he was a local actor) makes a strong impression in the supporting role of Eddie’s friend and colleague Louis.
Alex Esola’s Marco has dignity and power, qualities necessary during a climactic scene by which time the actors are no longer functioning in anything near a realistic context, but rather as forces of the intractable narrative.
Danny Binstock rounds out the cast as an immigration officer, and he sounded good. I say “sounded” because, although he was upstage center and elevated during his one scene, he was totally obscured by actors standing downstage of him. But by that point in the evening, it’s become apparent that sightline issues are not high on van Hove’s list of concerns.
Two banks of audience sit on-stage on the sides of the action. I can imagine that the experience of seeing this production up that close must be particularly enjoyable and, indeed, the audience on-stage got to their feet during curtain call before the folks out front.
My cavils aside, I am giving this production five stars. It’s a uniquely skilled examination of a classic play that all but the most conservative of theatre-goers will be glad to have seen.
Sure, there are things I might wish had been handled differently, but, to paraphrase Bette Davis, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars…” (Five of them, in fact, from this appreciative audience member.)
A View From the Bridge, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Featuring Danny Binstock, Catherine Combs, Alex Esola, Andrus Nichols, Howard W. Overshown, Dave Register, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Frederick Weller. Scenic and Lighting design: Jan Versweyveld. Costume Design: An D’Huys. Sound Design: Tom Gibbons. Production Stage Manager: David S. Franklin. The Kennedy Center presents The Center Theatre Group Production of The Young Vic Production. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.