Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 24, 2010
A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty, Costume design by Jane Greenwood, Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, Sound design by Scott Lehrer, Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Hecht, with Michael Cristofer, Morgan Spector, Corey Stoll, Alex Cendese, Anthony DeSando, Antoinette LaVecchia, Matthew Montelongo, Mark Morettini, Joe Ricci, Robert Turano, Marco Verna.
That this could happen, and happen so thoroughly, is a reminder that even Arthur Miller is no sure thing. Neither is this play: It opened in a one-act, thematically overcomplicated production in 1955, ran just a few months, and found limited popular and critical success until Miller revised it into its current slightly more conventional and naturalistic two-act form. This story about a longshoreman, who sees his personal and patriotic existence fading before his eyes and does everything within his restricted means to stop it, has never been easy to target or sell.
But as a spiritual successor to Miller’s own Death of a Salesman, and treating many similar themes about the interplay of perception and reality as relating to the possibly mythical American Dream, it’s hardly bereft of power. The play’s central figure, Eddie Carbone, is almost as towering a mass of contradictions as is Willy Loman; and the two chief women in his life, his wife Beatrice and his niece Catherine, are vividly constructed ways of illuminating his myriad flaws. If not for one dated element, the pseudo-Brechtian narrator Alfieri (played as well as possible here by Michael Cristofer), who recounts how he watched events develop but felt helpless to stop them, there wouldn’t be even a whiff of mustiness about the play.
Mosher’s production, alas, is another matter. Though John Lee Beatty has provided a first-rate seedy Red Hook tenement set, Jane Greenwood’s costumes are appropriately stark, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting makes the most of every shadow, the full effect is unquestionably Miller lite. Mosher has gone for the grit, and found a lot of it, but missed the expansive underpinnings that make this a true theatrical tale rather than just another exploitative movie of the week. The problems manifest themselves most in the two central performances.
Johansson, making her Broadway debut, is a gingerly compelling screen actress, whose work in movies like Lost in Translation and Match Point has suggested she’s got the intelligent, gutsy chops needed for this role. And, for most of the first act, when Catherine is longing to escape the oppression of poor Brooklyn, Johansson convinces as a ripe Italian girl unsure of what options she really has. But when Catherine meets Eddie’s distant relatives from the old country, Marco (Corey Stoll) and Rodolpho (Morgan Spector), and blooms in the light of Rodolpho’s apparent love, Johansson still seems like the same pre-wilted flower. In neither voice nor manner does she progress beyond the lost girl of the opening scenes, which throws the rest of the story into turmoil.
The trick of the play, however, is that isn’t the real Eddie. A bigoted nationalist whose feelings for Catherine constantly threaten to transcend avuncular affection, Eddie’s truly an ugly stereotype given skyscraper stature so that Miller’s warnings about the importance of United States unity may unfold unimpeded. Schreiber, unfortunately, never goes the full way. His Eddie gets angrier and darker, yes, but never becomes big enough to consume the whole country. By the end of the play, when Eddie must face down Marco for control over his family (and by extension his homeland), Schreiber’s glimmering smolder is simply not sufficient for consuming him - let alone us - in the mythic conflagration Miller intended.
Some of the performers, including Stoll and Jessica Hecht as Beatrice, capably fill out their smaller, more manageable roles; Spector, who recently assumed the role of Rodolpho when the originally cast Santino Fontana was injured during previews, is still finding the proper balance between genuineness and menace. But if Eddie isn’t scraping the ceilings - as Miller demanded of all his heroes of the era, from Willy Loman to All My Sons’s Joe Keller to The Crucible’s John Proctor - their fine work is essentially meaningless. They’re there to reveal Eddie, but they need a starting place.
Eddie remaining a sensible cipher throughout prevents Miller’s deeper messages about the dangers of country-first intolerance from cutting as viciously as they should. His story suffices here as soap opera, but it should be less about an American family than about the American family, which built itself on inclusiveness but is forever at risk of being ripped apart by its exclusionary tendencies. For the play to really work, you must always believe that these people could be your next-door-neighbors and that their problems could be yours. But Mosher’s keeping everything at a safe distance makes this A View from the Bridge one you’d best approach with binoculars.