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A View From the Bridge

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 12, 2015

The Young Vic Production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Scenic & lighting design by Jan Versweyveld. Costume design by An D'huys. Sound design by Tom Gibbons. Cast: Mark Strong, Nicola Walker, Phoebe Fox, Russell Tovey, Michael Zegen, Michael Gould, Richard Hansell.
Theatre: Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Mark Strong and Phoebe Fox
Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Eddie Carbone's cage is no longer merely figurative. In Ivo van Hove's no-bars-held revival of A View From the Bridge, which just opened at the Lyceum as a coproduction of Lincoln Center Theater and London's Young Vic (where it premiered last season), you see from the get-go just how this Brooklyn longshoreman is trapped: in a towering grey box that reveals its contents only grudgingly, and then only when it wants to. And even between the time it inches its way up toward the flies at the start of the evening and when it crawls back down again nearly two hours later, it's always visible, cutting off light, threatening to block your view, and obliterating all hope that anyone caught within it will be able to escape its cheerless confines.

That this box also has the side-effect of subverting perhaps the most important aspect of Arthur Miller's play (which premiered on Broadway in 1955, but was revised into essentially this version for its London bow the following year) is of little consequence to van Hove. Why should it be? The Belgian director has made his name on these shores with both remountings of classics (A Streetcar Named Desire, Hedda Gabler, his recent Antigone at BAM) and new efforts (Scenes from a Marriage at New York Theatre Workshop last year) that flay away the excesses of things like sets, costumes, accents, and theatrical common sense in favor of a surfeit of less.

You know what they say: Everything in moderation. And moderation is hardly van Hove's strong suit as far as staging and interpretation, which tend to be maximalist in a uniquely minimalist way. That's seldom been more true than with this A View From the Bridge, which goes to extravagant lengths to appear to go to no lengths all, including slicing and dicing the text to remove characters, scene breaks, and even the intermission, and does away with the additional filigree of time and place that give the work—like all of Miller's—its crucial, explanatory context. What remains is raw and naked, yes, particularly as acted by a flawlessly on-point cast led by Mark Strong, Nicola Walker, and Phoebe Fox. But it's also one-level and abstruse, a trade-off I'm not sure is worth it.

The obviousness hits the instant the box goes up to reveal a vastly empty set fusing a 21st-century operating theater and a boxing ring, complete with glass foundation. The audience is on three sides, with two seating banks added to extend into the onstage wings, seemingly intended to make us the community that informs, edifies, and ultimately destroys Eddie (Strong). But for those seated in the house as usual, the effect is muted, either because you're looking up at the action or too far away from it to feel a part of it. It's easy to imagine how this could work in an Off-Broadway theater (or the Circle in the Square, this mounting's currently occupied natural Broadway home), but here it's distracting rather than enveloping. That the lights (like the set, the design of Jan Versweyveld) care so much about shadow that they illuminate anything only reluctantly, and the sound design (by Tim Gibbons) plays a constant, droning music (frequently heavy in bass) that frequently drowns out the performers' voices, doesn't help.

Mark Strong and Phoebe Fox joined by Michael Zegen, Nicola Walker, Michael Gould, and Russell Tovey
Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Eddie, his wife Beatrice (Walker), and their 17-year-old niece Catherine (Fox), whom they raised, careen about the space as if wayward atoms, occasionally colliding to create moments of potent force. Most of these concern Eddie's feelings for Catherine, which are something less pure than avuncular, but also manifest themselves in the irritated incompatibility between Eddie and Beatrice (who have not been intimate in a long while), and particularly Eddie and the two illegal-immigrant family members, Marco (Michael Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey), who come to stay at his home while they make money to send back to Italy. And when Rodolpho and Catherine begin a relationship, requiring Eddie to confront his past, his kin, and how he relates to both his neighborhood and the Old World, the chained beast strains against his bonds in fierce defiance of the reality he's always denied.

Van Hove's spin, however, does not deepen or redefine this basic struggle; it simply presents it, divorced from its anchoring location and era, as if overeager to highlight the story's timeliness. (Certainly, some of the discussions of the consequences of illegal immigration resonate loudly today.) But those characteristics are what make A View From the Bridge alternately engrossing and maddening. Eddie, frequently considered (like Willy Loman) an everyday tragic hero, can only be correctly measured against his upbringing. Without seeing who he is, where he is, and what made him that way, his struggle is meaningless. Replacing his dilapidated stomping grounds with a featureless flying cube and sweeping away half the characters and bodies onstage that might clutter the surroundings make this Eddie more in some ways, but less in most—in any event, you don't get to know him better, which makes the whole exercise questionable.

One suspects that van Hove's vision was inspired by one of the more problematic aspects of the script, the lawyer-narrator Alfieri (a utilitarian Michael Gould), whose reminiscences and spiritual elevation of Eddie add a patina of "memory play." Eddie is vital enough on his own, and Alfieri is frequently an interfering, rather than an amplifying, presence. If van Hove makes it clear that everything we see is a tightly compartmentalized chunk of Alfieri's personal recollection, he fails to explain why that's important, which makes his already intractable concept even more difficult to swallow, let alone absorb.

For whatever other trouble van Hove has had, he's helped the actors get exactly where they need to be. To reiterate: There's nothing miraculous here. But the performances are all rock-solid within a very difficult framework. Strong brings a laser-focus to Eddie that carves him out as a man who's driven by history (his own and that of others), and not just an unhinged lech. In fact, his feelings for Catherine are so subtle that he convinces you no less than himself that there's nothing untoward about them, which make his eventual devolution into desperate animal even more stunning and heartbreaking: you're witnessing the conclusion you knew would come but wanted to pretend never would.

Strong's strength is reasonably reflected in Walker's Beatrice, who's had to erect walls of protection to survive being with Eddie and match him at every turn; these are two people who undoubtedly belong together. Fox shows us how Catherine is caught between the rough-and-tumble world of her upbringing and the more conventional happiness she seeks now, and the conflict (good versus evil—but which is which?) believably is hollowing her out from the inside. Zegen doesn't overplay Marco's violent, suggestive streak, and Tovey tints Rodolpho's nature with a gentle air of mystery that causes you to wonder throughout whether Eddie is really right about him hiding who he is and what his goals are.

Whatever else may be said of the approaches he takes, van Hove similarly always puts his full self on display. With him you rarely feel, as you might with other directors, that he's imposing gimmicks; a subtext-free and context-free universe, where everything exists disconnected of archaic notions of "where" and "when," genuinely seems to be where he thinks all theatre should live. It's as valid a worldview as any, but plays that rely on more traditional qualities to come to life can't be bent to that style of will, no matter what's done to them. This production proves that van Hove's attempts to untether A View From the Bridge have only locked it away further, behind an opaque cube that, like that of his set, he'd better off lifting away

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