Scarcely a breath of life, other than stage life, remains in Arthur Miller's melodramatic "A View From the Bridge," which returned to us last night at the Ambassador. True, the production itself, first seen at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater last season, is lackluster, but that only seems to emphasize the drabness of the work.
This is not the original 1955 "Bridge" (Miller's engaging "A Memory of Two Mondays" was the curtain-raiser for what was then a long one-acter), but the enlarged, two-act version Miller subsequently created and which I had not caught up with until now. Though even the original seemed as phony as a longshoreman leader's pat on the back, it had a becoming tautness. And while the late Van Heflin's portrayal of the maddened and doomed informer, Eddie Carbone, has earned a reputation of being at fault - ethnically unsound, is the familiar charge - over the years, it was actually a much more vital and resonant performance than Tony Lo Bianco's in the current revival. And just what is the ethnicity of "A View From the Bridge"? Aside from crossing themselves now and then, and making references to work at the docks, the Carbones and their associates might have been just as much at home in the Tremont Ave. section of the Bronx as in Brooklyn's Red Hook district.
You'll remember that "Bridge" is the story of an emotional and none-too-bright longshoreman, Eddie, whose unnatural regard for the purity of the orphaned niece he and his wife have raised leads him to inform on the young illegal alien he has harbored and who has fallen in love with the girl, thereby breaking the community's code of honor and leading to his death.
Until things really get hairy in the second half, Eddie's nutty behavior and his wife's remonstrations are funny enough, at least here, to make me think at times that I was watching an episode of "The Honeymooners" with strange players. And the use of the lawyer Alfieri - whom Eddie consults on occasion, only to ignore his wise counsel - as the play's narrator (he introduces it, closes it and comments at intervals in between) is entirely unnecessary. Perhaps prompted by Tennessee Williams' expressive use of this device in "The Glass Menagerie" several years before, it permits Miller to assail us with such purple observations as, "This is the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world."
In speech and appearance, the slouching, swaggering, hunching, imperious Lo Bianco is right for the part of Eddie, but the characterization is a shallow one. Rose Gregorio hasn't much to do other than look woebegone and finally stand up to her errant husband shortly before his death (this scene is badly staged, by the way). Saundra Santiago is acceptable as the fond niece, Catherine. But James Hayden, playing the male love interest, Rudolpho, the object of Eddie's hatred and scorn (you'll recall the big and, at the time, sensational kissing scene, in which Eddie treats Rudolpho as a girl in front of his already affianced Catherine), has such an indeterminate accent that, especially with that blond hair called for in the role, he might have just as easily hailed from Scandinavia or Poland as Italy. Otherwise, his performance was well balanced. Alan Feinstein was much more convincing as Marco, the other alien sheltered by the Carbones and Eddie's eventual avenger. Robert Prosky's Alfieri was too portentous, but this is a rather thankless part, at best.
Arvin Brown has directed the large cast (there are lots of bit roles) without much drive, probably out of a misplaced respect for the script of a writer (and Connecticut neighbor) deserving of respect for other work.
Hugh Landwehr's moody, and moodily lighted (by Ronald Wallace), setting, an open interior-exterior set with the suggestion of a bridge girder above, is admirably designed. But, production shortcomings aside, the view grows dimmer, for this is a play that seems to have had its day.
Arthur Miller had a strange kind of Broadway premiere at the Ambassador Theater last night - so strange that I imagine few people noticed. It was one of his classic Ibsenite dramas, A View From the Bridge, expertly played with all the spent passion it demands, and all the underlining its italicized melodrama suggests.
It is Ibsen for people who don't know about Ibsen, Greek tragedy for people who don't care about Greek tragedy. It is also fiercely competent work that suffers from nothing other than the pretensions of its author and the overpraise of its thinning number of admirers.
I enjoyed it more than almost anything else during this scant season. But then I happen to be notorious for giving Miller two-faced notices. This is because he is the Janus of our playwrights. Everything positive about him provides its own negative - like an albatross for an ancient mariner.
Practicalities over first - why is it a sort of Broadway premiere?
In 1955 Miller wrote a sparse Greek tragedy/inspired play, A View From the Bridge, which was staged on Broadway in a double bill with another play, A Memory of Two Mondays.
It failed. Some people liked it but not enough. A year later I saw it in a far more realistic version staged in London by Peter Brook. It was in two acts - it starred Anthony Quayle in one of the great performances of his career, it was banned by the censor, and it was an undernight sensation.
This version has since become the standard. It was, I believe, staged Off-Broadway - although I saw neither this nor the verse-style Broadway original - but here and now it is having its Broadway premiere, in a production that originated in New Haven's Long Wharf Theater.
The production does everything that can be done for the play short of a miracle. It shows Miller at his puzzling best and his puzzling worst. Most of all it shows that the man still has a voice and - he should appreciate this - a name.
Critics cavil at Miller - unhappily I do myself - but they never stop him. His plays hit a nerve accurately but critics tend to forget the unerring aim and only concentrate on the clumsy weapon. This is Miller's conundrum - he writes so cheaply, yet his dramatic effects are priceless.
Like a Greek tragedy the action of the play is preordained from the beginning, there is no escape. Its hero, Eddie, is a doomed man - dead from the first curtain.
A Brooklyn longshoreman of Italian stock he has a wife, Beatrice, and a 17-year-old niece, Catherine, whom he has brought up from childhood. Two cousins of his wife, Marco and Rodolpho, arrive from Sicily as illegal immigrants. The stage is set. An elderly Italian lawyer, Alfieri, wise in the ways of the waterfront, acts as a Greek chorus to the inevitable. For, as we soon realize, Eddie loves Catherine not wisely but too well.
Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho - a blond Sicilian boy fond of fun and music. An enraged Eddie accuses the boy of homosexuality - and seeks to prove his point by kissing him on the mouth.
Such strategems failed Eddie - knowing well the social consequences of an act he has earlier reviled at some dramatic length - anonymously informs the immigration authorities of the presence of Rodolpho and his elder brother Marco in his house.
From there on in the ending is a formality. No wonder the play once made the basis of a successful Italian opera. It was made to measure - from its flawed hero, himself seemingly uncertain of his sexuality, and his vain fight for a name and honor irrevocably abandoned by his own folly.
Strong stuff. And in its own way carefully crafted. But for all the psuedo-poetics - I cannot for the moment lay my hands on the comparative scripts but have a hunch that some of Alfieri's philosophizing is here adapted from the play's first version - the writing is melodramatically bland.
I saw neither Van Heflin in the original, nor Robert Duvall or Robert Castellano in the long-running Off-Broadway resuscitation, but I must say Tony Lo Bianco's Eddie has real, driven power. Not for him the great tragic sense of Quayle - who, like Peter Brook, had probably never even seen the Brooklyn Bridge let alone a longshoreman - but in its place, a superb vernacular performance.
But then - within the play's limitational conventions - the director Arvin Brown has coaxed lovely performances out of everyone. Robert Prosky's poetically dog-eared lawyer, Rose Gregorio as the loving wife, Saundra Santiago and James Hayden as the lovers in innocence, and Alan Feinstein as the strong, silent vengeful Marco, are all first class.
And the play has its moments of intense power - a first act curtain, for example, that is tremendous. And Miller certainly plays on the audience - which respond adoringly to this play - with the skill of a master. And, and, and...but with Miller nowadays there always seems to be a final But....
It's thrilling to watch two long-estranged old friends come to one another's rescue in their hour of darkest need. And, in a figurative sense, that's just what is happening this moment at the Ambassador Theater. The two old friends I refer to are Arthur Miller and Broadway. Mr. Miller hasn't had a success in a Broadway house for well over a decade. Broadway is in the midst of its leanest season in years. But thanks to the stunning revival of ''A View From the Bridge'' that opened last night, Mr. Miller has found a haven on Broadway again, and Broadway has found a much-needed evening of electric American drama. I hope no one wakes us up and tells us that this is all a dream.
Who would have predicted this fortunate turn of events? Not this theatergoer, who has some strong reservations about Mr. Miller's play, which first appeared on Broadway as a one-acter in 1955 and is seen here in the full-length, now standard version that Peter Brook first staged in London in 1956 and that Ulu Grosbard mounted Off Broadway in 1966. Those reservations aren't eliminated by this production, which originated last season at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater, but they are certainly minimized by the shrewd and forceful direction of Arvin Brown and by the tumultuous star performance of Tony Lo Bianco. Mr. Lo Bianco is such a dynamic and enveloping force that the audience has no chance to even think of questioning the play until well after it's over.
The star plays Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman with a secret, unrecognized passion ''that had moved into his body like a stranger.'' That passion is an incestuous, possessive love for the 17-year-old orphan niece, Catherine (Saundra Santiago), whom he and his wife Beatrice (Rose Gregorio) have raised like a daughter. ''A View From the Bridge'' is about the destruction the jealous Eddie wreaks on himself and his family once Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho (James Hayden), an Italian cousin of Beatrice's who is living at the Carbone house as an illegal immigrant. Eddie's reckless path of vengeance leads inexorably to catastrophic violence, but not before he has committed the cardinal sin against his close-knit community - informing to the immigration police.
Mr. Brown stages ''A View From the Bridge'' for what it most successfully is: not a McCarthy-era parable or a universal morality play, but a vivid, crackling, idiomatic psychosexual horror tale. Though the evening eventually builds to an operatic crescendo, the director takes the rise slowly, reinforcing the playwright's gift for realism so that we'll be drawn fully into the sordid chain of events. Mr. Miller's ear for his characters' working-class vernacular is extremely well served, the comic rhythms included. The strategically placed theatrical eruptions come to a boil suddenly in otherwise small-scale, earthy domestic scenes.
This is a play that, in its own words, offers ''no mystery to unravel,'' but the air is charged with tension in this production. When Eddie kisses Rodolpho on the mouth in the desperate attempt to brand him as a homosexual before his niece, the moment still catches us unawares and shocks. The spellbinding mood is enhanced by the designers, who give the waterfront a foreboding, film noir aura. Hugh Landwehr frames the shabby Red Hook living room and the street outside against the intimidating span of a bridge and a long dark staircase that surely must lead to doom. Ronald Wallace's lighting suggests that every playing area, even the corner phone booth from which Eddie makes a fateful call, is illuminated by a single hanging lightbulb.
Mr. Brown's staging is also to be applauded for what it deemphasizes in the text. Along with the contrived plot setups, notably a sudden bail negotiation in Act II, the trickiest aspect of this play is Alfieri, the lawyer who serves as a Greek-chorus narrator. Alfieri speaks in the rhetoric of tragedy and constantly makes portentous announcements about Eddie's ''destiny'' running ''its bloody course.'' But as many have noted, Eddie does not have the grandeur of a tragic hero - he's merely a psychotic about to be devoured by his long-repressed sickness. To downplay the exalted claims that Mr. Miller makes for his protagonist through Alfieri, Mr. Brown has enlisted that fine actor Robert Prosky to play the lawyer in the most unassuming, intelligently humorous manner imaginable. The strategy considerably lightens the play's burden of pretentiousness.
Mr. Prosky's performance typifies the supporting cast's high caliber. Miss Santiago makes a very impressive Broadway debut as Catherine. She isn't a Lolita or a fool but a genuine innocent who just doesn't recognize until too late why her uncle so domineeringly demands her affection and obedience. Once that recognition comes, the actress blossoms from a girl into a woman, and, by the end, into a woman old before her time. As her suitor, Mr. Hayden is also an affecting overgrown child, pathetically clinging to his immigrant's politeness in the face of Eddie's repeated taunts - until, finally, he, too, must reach adulthood through rage. Alan Feinstein is charismatic in his delineation of the more brutal expressions of anger that define Rodolpho's brother, Marco.
As the wife Beatrice, the play's smartest and most brutalized character, Rose Gregorio is chilling. When she lashes out bitterly at Eddie about her own unhappiness, he's too absorbed in his own obsession even to look at her. Forced to see that both she and her husband are now forever isolated in their own separate miseries, Miss Gregorio yanks her eyes and mouth into slashes of pain that are horrifying to behold. And she tops this later on, when she conveys Beatrice's dawning realization of Eddie's ultimate betrayal by locking herself into her chair, hands on knees, as if the weight of her knowledge is crushing her to death.
It says a lot about Mr. Lo Bianco's performance that, powerful as it is, it does not obliterate the others. True to the production, his Eddie is in human scale. The character doesn't know what's eating him - or at least he's the last to know - and the actor uses subtle means to fill in gradually the guilt and self-revulsion that only slowly come to the surface.
At first a jocular if testy neighborhood Joe, Mr. Lo Bianco then seems to drift apart from himself - as if he were outside looking in, trying to decipher with everyone else the unarticulated warped logic that leads him to challenge Catherine's every little effort to venture from the nest. ''His eyes were like tunnels,'' says Alfieri, and so Mr. Lo Bianco's are. Volatile one moment, totally withdrawn the next, the actor travels within a cloud of impenetrable turbulence that visibly buffets all around him.
But even early on, there's a hint of the larger explosion to come: we see an undefinable, split-second twist of perverse malevolence to the casual hand gesture that Eddie uses to dismiss Catherine's plea to wear high-heeled shoes. Once Eddie finally does recognize that what he hungers for in life is not the ''respect'' he talks about but his niece, the shattering guilt transforms him into a sweaty, deranged, hissing animal - a rat. Mr. Lo Bianco is a slight, anonymous-looking man, but he looms up to make the theater shake.
Maybe we can't be deeply moved by this cruel man's plight, but we are nonetheless trapped totally inside it. What is deeply moving about the evening is the spectacle of seeing our theater lovingly make the absolute most of its still usable and valuable past.