What’s extraordinary about Gregory Mosher’s beautifully observed production of “A View From the Bridge” is how ordinary most of it feels. Very little in this revival of Arthur Miller’s kitchen-sink drama with knives, which opened Sunday night at the Cort Theater, calls loudly for our consideration. Voices are often kept to a just audible murmur, and the Hollywood sheen of the show’s big-name stars, Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson, has been dimmed to a matte finish.
Brooklyn, made up of the characters so exquisitely played by Mr. Schreiber, Ms. Johansson and Jessica Hecht, feels like spying across the alley on neighbors who would normally be invisible to you. Yet there’s no question of not paying them the attention that Miller demands.
Looking closely, you notice hairline fissures of unease. What has been cozy becomes, by degrees, claustrophobic, and even if you don’t know the play’s outcome, you’re apt to discover a knot in your stomach. A part of you feels that you should stand up and yell, to defuse tension and deflect disaster, though, as one character notes retrospectively, “nothing at all had really happened.”
Even more than with “Death of a Salesman,” Miller used “Bridge” to sell his theory that true tragic heroes may well emerge from the common run of contemporary lives. So eager was he to make the point that he even included a one-man Greek chorus, an Italian-born lawyer named Alfieri (here played by Michael Cristofer), who speaks loftily about the grandeur of the story’s “bloody course” of incestuous longings and fatal consequences.
Perhaps Miller felt that plays, like classical heroes, required tragic flaws, and thus provided one for “Bridge” in the form of the long-winded Alfieri. This drama needs no annotator or apologist if it’s acted with the naturalistic refinement — and accumulation of revelatory detail — found in this interpretation.
I had wondered if “Bridge” really needed another revival. New York saw a first-rate production only a dozen years ago, directed by Michael Mayer, with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney and the young Brittany Murphy (who died at 32 last year). But this latest incarnation makes the case that certain plays, like certain operas, are rich enough to be revisited as often and as long as there are performers with strong, original voices and fresh insights.
Mr. Mosher’s approach is more sotto voce than Mr. Mayer’s was and more intimately focused. The play’s first scenes in the crowded apartment of Eddie Carbone (Mr. Schreiber) have a prosaic quietness. Eddie returns to his apartment from a hard day at the docks to be greeted warmly by Catherine (Ms. Johansson), the 17-year-old niece he has raised with his wife, Beatrice (Ms. Hecht), as his own daughter.
You’re struck by the easy, affectionate interplay between Eddie and Catherine, and by the more fretful, but still amiable, rapport of Eddie and his wife. There is at first glance nothing wrong with this picture.
When you hear the family will be taking in two Italian cousins of Beatrice’s — young men in need of work (and illegally in the country) — you figure that though the apartment is already crowded, the Carbones can handle the company. Even after the arrival of Marco (Corey Stoll) and his younger brother, Rodolpho (Morgan Spector), the politely regulated tension that you sense could arise simply from too many people in too small a space.
But as he has demonstrated repeatedly onstage (“Talk Radio,” “Betrayal”), Mr. Schreiber registers changes in emotional temperature with organic physical precision. At one point, maybe 20 minutes into the show, I looked at his face and it had acquired that drawn, stripped look that comes from sleepless nights. There was no doubting that Eddie Carbone was headed for some kind of breakdown, or that Mr. Schreiber had been gently steering you toward this perception since his first appearance.
Mr. Schreiber is such a complete actor that he has often thrown productions into imbalance, highlighting the inadequacy of the performances around him. That is not a problem here. That the excellent stage veteran Ms. Hecht holds her own with Mr. Schreiber is no surprise. That Ms. Johansson does — with seeming effortlessness — is.
In recent years Broadway’s stages have been littered with dim performances from bright screen stars, including Julia Roberts and Katie Holmes. Film actresses as famous as Ms. Johansson tend to create their own discomfort zones onstage, defined by the mixed expectations of fans and skeptics. I was definitely aware of that zone when I saw Keira Knightley in “The Misanthrope” in London recently.
By comparison, Ms. Johansson melts into her character so thoroughly that her nimbus of celebrity disappears. Her Catherine is a girl on the cusp of womanhood, feeling her way down familiar paths that have suddenly been shrouded in unfamiliar shadows.
The production’s three stars form a closely drawn, illuminating graph of degrees of awareness: Ms. Hecht’s taut, vigilant Beatrice is the most fully conscious, forever taking the measure of what’s amiss. Mr. Schreiber’s Eddie is a study in denial, startled and baffled by physical manifestations of lust and sorrow. Ms. Johansson’s Catherine exists between the two, slowly becoming cognizant of what Beatrice already knows and Eddie refuses to admit.
As the young Italian who falls in love with Catherine, Mr. Spector is burdened by an unfortunate blond coif and by having had to step in for Santino Fontana, a fine actor who left the production after a physical injury. Yet Mr. Spector’s Rodolpho is both as silly and serious as he needs to be, and becomes a credible catalyst to grim events. Mr. Stoll is excellent as the relatively silent Marco. And Mr. Cristofer finds a bona fide character within his thankless narrator’s role.
The subtlety that imbues every performance is extended to the unobtrusive stylishness of Jane Greenwood’s 1950s costumes, Peter Kaczorowski’s melancholy lighting and John Lee Beatty’s revolving set. For the show’s still shocking climactic scene, Mr. Beatty’s streetscape of Brooklyn tenements has quietly shifted to suggest a much older world, of ancient coliseums where blood darkens stones.
Without your being entirely aware of it, you have been ushered to exactly where Miller wants you to be: the realm of classical tragedy. And to the cast’s infinite credit you realize that these characters not only belong in this world at this moment, but that on some level they always have.
A new revival of A View From the Bridge (* * *½ out of four) features what could be this season's most inspired piece of movie-star casting — though you may not immediately recognize the star.
While the ingénue in this production, which opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, is certainly a beauty, her sweetly awkward air and thick Brooklyn accent hardly evoke a screen goddess. But she is, in fact, Scarlett Johansson— in a brunet wig — making an enchanting Broadway debut in Arthur Miller's sobering fable.
Johansson disappears so completely into the role of Catherine, the plucky but naïve niece of a longshoreman, that you won't stop to consider the qualities that make her distinctly suited to the part. Only afterward will you likely realize the actress's youthful sensuality and capacity for good-natured goofiness constitute a perfect fit for this sheltered 17-year-old struggling to come to terms with her effect on men — her uncle, in particular.
Actually, Catherine's Uncle Eddie, played here by a predictably superb Liev Schreiber, is more of a father figure; he and his wife, Beatrice, have raised the girl since her mother died. But as she blossoms, Eddie's paternal protectiveness is evolving into something more closely resembling sexual jealousy.
That jealousy is piqued when Beatrice's male cousins arrive from Italy. Marco has a spouse back home, but his brother Rodolpho is single and handsome, and he and Catherine take an instant shine to each other. Eddie tries to convince his niece (and himself) that Rodolpho is deceitful and effeminate. When he fails, Eddie is driven to desperate measures, with tragic consequences.
Where some directors wax operatic trying to convey Miller's intricate morality and heated humanism, Gregory Mosher opts for a more naturalistic approach. Michael Cristofer, playing a local lawyer who doubles as the play's narrator, alternately participating in the action and reflecting on it, provides a tone that's at once conversational and theatrical.
The other actors honor the pedestrian traits of Miller's characters and the lofty ideals they aspire to, often failingly. Jessica Hecht reveals Beatrice's devotion and despair with heartbreaking purity. Corey Stoll's easily masculine Marco and Morgan Spector's endearing Rodolpho are both compelling foils for Eddie.
Johansson and Schreiber make the tension between Eddie and Catherine excruciatingly poignant, by showing us there's still great affection between this misguided man and the woman he can no longer love like a child.
That Schreiber would bring such uncompromising humanity to his latest stage project was a given. But Johansson's performance is a revelation — some cause for happiness at the end of this bleak, shattering drama.
Sometimes it's high praise to call a stage director's work invisible. The compliment applies to Gregory Mosher's searing revival of "A View From the Bridge," though it by no means indicates any lack of craftsmanship or insight. Returning to Broadway after a considerable absence, Mosher has instilled in his outstanding cast an unconditional trust in Arthur Miller's text, evoking a time, a place and a 1950s blue-collar community with penetrating integrity. Each scene flows seamlessly from the one before in a production that expertly plants the seeds of inexorable tragedy yet grips with a tension and volatility that make every moment seem unpredictable.
The revival was assembled around the casting of Liev Schreiber as Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman whose simmering passion for his 17-year-old niece propels him to break unthinkable moral and family codes. Schreiber brings blistering intensity to the role; there's as much power in his silences and baleful glances as in his anger. His spasms of pain suggest a man whose belligerence can't quite mask the terror and panic induced by his helpless condition.
From the moment, early on, when he gently nuzzles his head into a too-lingering embrace with the orphaned girl who has grown up in his house, we know Schreiber's Eddie is possessed by a desire that blinds and befuddles him.
Denial is stamped deep into the subconscious of Schreiber's characterization, but it's the absence of calculation that elevates Miller's marriage of naturalistic psychological drama and Greek tragedy. It also informs the nuanced work of the actors around him.
Chief among them are Scarlett Johansson, remarkably assured as Eddie's niece Catherine, torn between childlike loyalty and a womanly yen for independence; and Jessica Hecht as his wife, Beatrice.
The latter follows her impeccable work in the short-lived "Brighton Beach Memoirs" with a performance of even more finely layered complexity, offsetting Bea's nagging harshness with a delicacy that's heartbreaking. Her warnings to both Eddie and Catherine are issued more out of fear than jealousy. The character's tragedy is that even when all of Eddie's betrayals are exposed, she still loves him, expressed in an animal howl at the devastating close of the play.
While Bea observes from the beginning that her husband is on dangerous ground, the stability of the Carbone household is shaken beyond repair by the arrival of Bea's cousins, Rodolpho (Morgan Spector) and Marco (Corey Stoll), illegal immigrants fresh off the boat from Sicily. The instant romance between Catherine and Rodolpho causes Eddie's overprotective impulses to run riot as his resentment of Rodolpho crescendos into hatred.
He starts by inferring the Italian is courting Catherine only to benefit his immigration status. Then when that fails to discourage her, he insinuates Rodolpho is homosexual. "The guy ain't right," he keeps repeating, pointing out as evidence that he sings, he sews, he cooks and he's blond.
Miller's employment of local lawyer Alfieri as a one-man Greek chorus -- providing portentous reflections on the action and articulating weighty themes of justice and honor -- can seem heavy-handed. But Michael Cristofer is an actor of uncommon intelligence and compassion who brings gravitas to the running commentary and perceptive depths to his two interviews with Eddie.
In these powerfully loaded scenes, Alfieri functions as the obstinate longshoreman's father confessor, without the sin ever being named. The futility of his attempts to steer Eddie away from his disastrous course is crushing.
Brushed with chiaroscuro textures by Peter Kaczorowski's brooding lighting, John Lee Beatty's quietly oppressive set is an atmospheric representation of an all-seeing community with rigid rules -- particularly regarding stool pigeons. The blackened windows of its looming tenement houses are like watchful eyes, illuminated only when Eddie crosses the line in a plot development that echoes Miller's own experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But it's the unraveling of his family that cuts deepest. "I want my respect," Eddie keeps barking at Beatrice, even when she can barely look at him. And even when the evidence is insurmountable that her troubled father figure will never be able to think rationally or disinterestedly about her future outside of his house, Catherine still struggles to free herself from her loyalty, dependence and naive hope that Eddie will somehow relent.
Looking shapely in tight sweaters and skirts yet still girlishly oblivious to her sensuality, Johansson embodies this dilemma with touching dignity, as much in her moments of cautious distance as those of heated self-assertiveness.
Originally an understudy, Spector stepped into the role of Rodolpho at short notice when Santino Fontana was injured during previews. But there's no trace of uncertainty in his performance, which is rich in humor and flirtatious warmth, with just a hint of ambiguity to feed Eddie's suspicions. As Rodolpho's married brother Marco, Stoll etches a fully grounded man of formidable physical and moral strength.
There's not a false note in any of the performances or an ill-considered directorial stroke in Mosher's clear-eyed approach to this first-rate revival.