Shortly after the stage version of "On the Waterfront" begins, a rasping grumble erupts upstage. It comes from the throat of Kevin Conway, who plays the union boss Johnny Friendly. He is talking about unloading a ship full of bananas, but the menace in his voice, even when he makes wisecracks, is so profound he could be plotting an assassination.
Conway is so mesmerizing I found myself waiting for his appearances. Although there are other very credible performances in the production, nothing about it makes you believe there was a crying need for a brilliant film to be translated to the stage.
I actually saw the stage version once before, when presented by a group called the Renegade Company of Hoboken, N. J. (where the film was made), on Theater Row in 1993. At the time, I was told that Budd Schulberg had written the stage version about the time he did the screenplay, and had always wanted to see it performed because the play placed more emphasis on the waterfront priest who had inspired the story in the first place.
That earlier production moved fluidly, by virtue of a paucity of scenery. This staging is dominated by huge sheets of heavy steel that clang against each other and the stage floor with a force that conveys the harsh world of the piers but interrupts the flow of the short scenes.
Moreover, for some reason the ending, in which the hero, Terry Molloy, gets killed, has been muted. Here it happens offstage and is narrated, which is far less effective than seeing Terry attacked by men wielding hooks.
Adrian Hall moves the actors around the stage smoothly but fails to get much out of Penelope Ann Miller in the pivotal role of the woman who persuades Terry to cooperate with the government.
Ron Eldard gives a fine performance as Terry, David Morse has several memorable scenes as the tough priest and George Martin is lovely as his superior.
Plus, there is strong character work by the assorted hoods around them, but it's almost impossible to watch the play without the film ringing in one's ears, so indelibly has it etched itself into the American consciousness.
Splash...gurgle...gurgle...gurgle. The plop you are hearing comes courtesy of the stage version of "On the Waterfront," which began life at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night and promptly jumped off the pier.
For anyone not paying attention, "On the Waterfront" is the final incarnation of Budd Schulberg's novel "On the Waterfront," which itself started life as Schulberg's own remarkable and brilliant screenplay for Elia Kazan's great movie...of the same name.
I say final incarnation in the hope that Schulberg is not going to collaborate with, say, Gian Carlo Menotti to offer us "On the Waterfront" the opera, that Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn't want to make it into a musical, and that no one intends to offer it to Michael Eisner for "Walt Disney's On the Waterfront on Ice."
Perhaps I sound meaner than I mean. Many people have labored long and hard to produce the mighty mouse that has now emerged. But, unfortunately in my book, it is not a contenda.
The trouble is - and sure, I'm Monday-morning quaterbacking here - the very idea of putting this iconic movie, with its perfect movie script, on stage was wrong-headed from the first.
it was like taking a Harley-Davidson, immobilizing the motor and trying to sell it as a push-bike. It ain't going to be a wild one, or even a live one.
It's a fascinating saga, this mob-control of New York's longshoremen through their union, and the battle against these racketeers by a waterfront priest, Father John Corridan, various investigative journalists, including notably Malcolm Johnson and Schulberg himself, and the waterfront Crime Commission.
Nor, as we read of mob influence at Javit Center or even now on the waterfront, need we doubt that, regrettably, Schulberg's subject matter is still alive and deadly at this very moment.
The trouble is not the story but the play. Written by Schulberg with (smaller typeface) Stan Silverman, huge gobbets of the dialogue are taken direct from Schulberg's own movie script of a young longshoreman (a washed-up fighter), caught up in the mob, and his difficulties of conscience over becoming an informer.
Yet the movie script is transformed by the action - the great close-ups and the long shots, the sense of place, the marvelous editing, the indelible performances.
Now even the changes - such as a downbeat epilogue, or emphasis on the official do-nothing policies of the Catholic diocese - detract from the original classic statement. Which, by the way, is still available in glorious black-and-white on video.
On Broadway, the director Adrian Hall, has done his largely unavailing best to give the stage some sense of epic shape and flow, and Eugene Lee's settings vary art with reality but never settle on either while the performances scarcely stand out. They were meant to be caught lovingly by a camera, not almost casually by a spotlight.
Both Penelope Ann Miller and Ron Eldard seem to sink without a trace in the roles identified with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando, and although some of the others, notably David Morse as the crusading priest and Kevin Conway as the brutal gang boss manage to bring an individuality to their roles, they still seem lost in the general artistic miasma.
Remember that great scene in the taxi between Brando and Rod Steiger? It's still here - now played out on a waterfront pier. In this version, the guys could be discussing baseball, but perhaps they don't even show enough grit and passion for that.
It's that grit and passion one misses. If I had to sum up this "On the Waterfront" in one word, I'd say: bloodless.
You don't have to have an especially long memory to wonder what on earth possessed Budd Schulberg to rewrite, though not reinvent, his Oscar-winning screenplay of "On the Waterfront" for the stage. Not as something new, like the libretto for an opera, say, or the book for a musical, but as the earnest, perfunctory, overproduced straight play that opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
It's not as if the classic 1954 film were lost. It continues to exist. It's available in museum archives and in any video shop not completely given over to the promotion of this week's Top 10. Yet for the price of a Broadway ticket, you now have the privilege of seeing what happens when a Rolex of a film is taken apart for no special esthetic reason, then put back together with much of its mechanism missing.
As important as the screenplay was, the film was also a triumph for each of its principal collaborators: Elia Kazan, the director; Marlon Brando, the star; Boris Kaufman, the cinematographer; Leonard Bernstein, the composer. The triumph of one was totally dependent on those of the others. When the film first came out, it also had a political relevance (now nearly forgotten) relating to the anti-Communist witch hunts conducted by Congressional committees investigating un-American activities.
With or without that context, the Schulberg screenplay, rewritten with Stan Silverman, simply isn't strong enough to function on its own.
Mr. Schulberg is a good novelist and screenwriter, but he lacks the distinctive, passionate voice of an Arthur Miller or a Clifford Odets. He's not the kind of playwright who writes naturally for, and profits mightily from, the limitations imposed by the stage. There's no awareness of the singular joys of the living theater. As is proper for films, he writes small, though sometimes ornately. His play needs more than incidental music and sound effects. It still needs a camera.
The story remains the same. It's that of Terry Malloy, the slightly punch-drunk former boxer and longshoreman whose conscience transforms him into a hero. Going against the code of the waterfront, Terry reluctantly testifies before a crime commission investigating union corruption on the New York and New Jersey docks. The time is the early 1950's, though the era is unidentified in the Playbill, possibly for fear that younger members of the audience will think they're watching a historical play.
About the only noticeable change Mr. Schulberg has made is to shift the focus slightly, in a way that allows him to give the story a somewhat more grim and melodramatic ending.
Though Terry Malloy is still at its center, the play uses Father Barry, the waterfront priest (Karl Malden's film role), as a kind of one-man chorus. In addition to being the catalyst for Terry's apotheosis, he presides over the play. He's the living equivalent of the great wooden crucifix that, like someone's afterthought, hangs from the center of the proscenium.
Father Barry directly addresses the audience at the play's beginning and end in monologues that might sound better as soundtrack narration, though they might be no more satisfactory. The events and the dialogue otherwise sound familiar; even, I suspect, when they are not.
The new "On the Waterfront" is also halfhearted in its attempt to evoke the look, sound, pace and emotional impact of a realistic movie with theatrical resources that, as used here, seem clumsy, inadequate and out of date. Typical is Eugene Lee's set, which vaguely recalls his Industrial Revolution design for the 1979 Broadway production of "Sweeney Todd." Yet it's neither impressionistically nor realistically successful.
Rather, it's a great dark jumble of artifacts: cyclone fences, tenement fire escapes, dock machinery, corrugated-iron stage curtains and brick walls. It's an environment meant to suggest a dozen locations -- from a pool hall to a tenement rooftop, from the hold of a ship to a church basement -- without clearly suggesting any single place with ease. Instead of serving the play, the set dwarfs the actors performing within it.
Chief among these: Ron Eldard, who plays Terry; David Morse, as Father Barry; Penelope Ann Miller, as Edie Doyle (played in the film by Eva Marie Saint); Kevin Conway as Johnny Friendly (the Lee J. Cobb role), the longshoremen's racketeering boss; Michael Harney, as Terry's older brother Charley (the role Rod Steiger had in the movie), who's the right-hand man and fixer for Johnny Friendly.
For all of the stage activity, which includes union shape-ups, brawls, beatings, a couple of love scenes and one brutal execution, and in spite of the actors' hard work, the production moves as if its feet hurt.
It can't be easy for Mr. Eldard, acting in the shadow of the greatest of all Brando performances. To the extent that the text and the production allow him, he creates his own character, shy, quick-witted at unexpected moments and very moving in the scene that's the highlight of the play as it is of the film.
This is Terry's confrontation with Charley, when his brother asks him to get out of town to avoid testifying before the crime commission. Terry suddenly remembers the night when Charley and Johnny Friendly asked him to take a dive in his most important fight, effectively ending his boxing career.
The resentments of his lifetime as a punk erupt in the great "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda" speech. Mr. Eldard realizes the moment, the only one in this production that rises above the commonplace.
Ms. Miller looks pretty and is as substantial as any good actress might be playing an icon of virtue. Mr. Morse doesn't yet seem entirely comfortable in the role of Father Barry, which he took over when Terry Kinney left the cast, but he's an actor of weight and intensity. The performance is evolving. Easily the most riveting contribution is Mr. Conway's as the murderous union boss. It's the most theatrical role in a production that's otherwise short of real theatrics.
It's no secret that "On the Waterfront" has had its problems during the rehearsal and preview period. Not only did Mr. Morse take over his role comparatively late in the proceedings, but also the original director, Gordon Edelstein, was replaced by Adrian Hall. And during Sunday afternoon's final preview performance, Jerry Grayson, who was playing one of the union goons, suffered a heart attack.
Yet this show was doomed long before it got anywhere near a theater. The decision to produce the play as a big-budget, large-cast spectacle guaranteed the production a split personality. If anyone had had faith in the play, it would have been presented less ostentatiously. It would have focused on the human drama and not on stage mechanics, which have little to do with the Schulberg themes of social commitment and spiritual redemption.
The production at the Brooks Atkinson is a monument only to the material heart of slapdash show biz.
"On the Waterfront" opens on Broadway after the rockiest tryout in recent memory. There was a last-minute change of director and of actors in two important roles, along with escalating preview costs that lifted the tab to nearly $ 3 million as the script went through numerous changes. As if that weren't enough, at the final preview, actor Jerry Grayson suffered an onstage heart attack, the drama eclipsing anything performed onstage as a doctor from the house valiantly performed CPR while all looked on in stunned silence.
Grayson survived. "On the Waterfront" probably won't, but in truth it's less of a disaster than the buzz has had it. To those familiar with Elia Kazan's 1954 film masterpiece -- and it's hard to imagine anyone isn't -- a stage adaptation begs the question: Why? This doesn't offer a very persuasive answer.
To be sure, there's plenty of contender in this show, and on at least one of the toughest calls the producers got it right: To play the role of Terry Malloy -- ex-boxer, pigeon lover and errand boy for his mob-owned big brother -- they found Ron Eldard, an actor who brings an appealing humanity to a role one would have thought inseparable from the actor who created it, Marlon Brando.
Eldard's Terry, like Brando's, is a wounded animal, but less earthbound. Eldard has a dancer's poig-nant grace and he isn't pretending to be his famed predecessor. The line readings are his own and the big speech he delivers to his brother Charley (Michael Harney) -- the scene is transposed from a car in the movie to a deserted pier in the play -- has a different resonance here. "I could have been a contender" is all but tossed off; for Eldard's Terry that fact is secondary to the issue of his brother's betrayal, and it's no small accomplishment that the notion comes across with such depth of feeling.
And Eldard's not alone in giving his gutsy all. He's matched by the priceless , Cagney-esque Johnny Friendly of Kevin Conway, the union boss. Conway tears into his speeches with the same hunger he has brought to every role in an extraordinary career.
Designer Eugene Lee's waterfront set is a world away from his Mississippi River setting for "Show Boat," and yet the effect is equally insular: It says we are being granted entrance into a world we have not known. Huge panels of corrugated steel rise and fall with thunderous clanging as the scenes shift around the dockside setting. The scale is as overwhelming as the grimy London Lee created for "Sweeney Todd."
The second-act death of Runty Nolan (Lance Davis) is a real theatrical jolt: the Phantom's chandelier has nothing on this effect.
Director Adrian Hall recalls no one so much as Lee's other longtime collaborator, Harold Prince, in the use of a chorus as Brechtian commentators. The crowds of men, whether angling for a day's work on a banana boat or circling to watch Terry's final confrontation with Johnny Friendly, are hauntingly and smoothly deployed.
For all that, the show never takes on a life of its own. Budd Schulberg, who adapted his screenplay and novel with the help of StanSilverman, has come up with a mere echo, and much of it is flat. This is particularly true of Father Barry (David Morse), the local priest who takes on the mob. For most of the play , Morse is a blank, speaking into the distance and never connecting.
More problematic is Edie Doyle, created memorably by Eva Marie Saint and here played by Penelope Ann Miller. The part, a college girl who returns to the waterfront determined to find out why her sweet brother Joey was murdered, seems even more underwritten than in the movie.
The production betrays the ravages of a chaotic gestation. The key role of Terry's brother Charley was taken over during the final previews by Harney, who comes across as someone who would have lasted about 15 seconds in this rough company. And many of the small roles are drawn and acted in the broadest strokes. On the other hand, Brad Sullivan has a haunted, ravaged quality as Pop Doyle.
The script of "On the Waterfront" never measures up to the screenplay bearing the same name, nor does the play in any way equal the movie. Like those sonorous clanking panels of steel, there are effects here to spare. In the end, however, they seem like about $ 3 million worth of gimmickry.