The move to a commercial theater of Michael Mayer's compulsively engrossing staging of Arthur Miller's tragedy "A View From the Bridge" - it started life earlier in the season at the non-profit Roundabout Theater - is a major event.
For it is a production that demonstrates the stature of one of Miller's most neglected plays, and, even apart from that touch of history, it enshrines, nay, celebrates, some of the finest acting in the city. This is unequivocally the most powerful ensemble performance to be found in New York.
Years ago Miller himself stressed that this play, about a Brooklyn longshoreman and the strange motives that lead him to be cast out of society, is "at bottom, a reassertion of the existence of the community. A solidarity that may be primitive but which finally administers a self-preserving blow against its violators."
It is this sense of community and society that Mayer, helped by the evocative setting by David Gallo, so marvelously suggests.
The story is based on a mixture of fact and legend - Miller was told it many years ago - and the playwright has admitted that he never quite understood the central character of Eddie Carbone. Of course, in the play he doesn't need to be fully understood; we only have to note the trajectory of his fall from ordinary grace.
The cast is virtually the same as earlier, except for Jeffrey Donovan, new and excellent as the lean and vengeful Marco, and, more important, Robert LuPone, who has joined the cast in the key role of the implacably sage, if puzzled, lawyer-cum-Greek-chorus Alfieri. He gives the role with just the right quiet authority.
The rest are as good, if not better than before, with Allison Janney and Brittany Murphy most touching as Eddie's wife and niece, and, as before, Anthony LaPaglia delivering a powerhouse performance as Eddie himself, a blinded bull struggling in some awesome arena of his passions.
The gesture is so small, so prosaic that it should be utterly forgettable. A middle-aged man, with a gruff but affectionate air of paternalism, is lecturing his pretty 17-year-old niece. He puts his hands on her waist, as if to confirm the goodwill behind his advice, then pulls them back. The conversation continues as before.
There is nothing inherently alarming in such a scene, is there? It's not exactly the stuff that tragedies are made of. Yet this fragment of an encounter, which occurs early in the first-rate new revival of Arthur Miller's "View From the Bridge," sends off a subliminal alarm that keeps getting louder as the play goes on. And as directed by Michael Mayer for the Roundabout Theater Company, with a cast that approaches perfection, the evening is etched throughout with precise, unobtrusive physical details that find the seeds of destruction in the seemingly insignificant.
The man in that early scene is Eddie Carbone, a Brooklyn longshoreman from the 1950s, and he is played by Anthony LaPaglia with the sort of bone-deep conviction that never lets you separate the actor from the part. Here, when Eddie withdraws his hands from that tentative embrace, it's with a trace of awkward abruptness, as though his fingers had started to burn. A wispy breath of uneasiness has stolen into the room.
You may not even have noticed that gesture. But you're suddenly, irrevocably aware that there's something a degree off balance in Eddie Carbone's household. The right (or the wrong) catalyst could upset the balance completely. And there's never any question that that's what's going to happen.
It was an earlier and better-known play by Miller, "Death of a Salesman" (1949), that opened the now familiar debate about using the common man as a bona fide tragic hero. But it was in "A View From the Bridge," first produced in a bill of one acts on Broadway in 1955 and later expanded into the two-act version seen here, that the playwright made his most explicit case for applying Aristotelian standards to characters most remarkable for their lack of remarkable qualities.
There's certainly little extraordinary about Eddie Carbone, a solid breadwinner with limited conversational skills. He is, as one character in "View" puts it, "as good a man as he had to be in a life that was hard and even." But there's no question that in Miller's eyes, Eddie's fall is as bleakly and grotesquely predetermined as that of Oedipus.
Lest you doubt that this is what the author has in mind, he has even introduced a one-man Greek chorus: a lawyer named Alfieri, who floats on the edge of the action while making grim pronouncements about character, fate and the law in its most abstract sense.
It may as well be pointed out right away that as a dramatic device, Alfieri has never worked, and he still doesn't, even with as fine an actor as Stephen Spinella in the role. (The character is bizarrely reminiscent of Rod Serling's creepy omniscient narrator in "The Twilight Zone.") But the rest of the play is so thoroughly compelling and such a distinctive, successful blend of elements great and small, that you're willing to accept Alfieri as an inevitable irritant, like the ants that show up at a picnic.
This "View" does indeed infuse a portrait of everyday, even banal domestic life with a sense of corrosive passion that steadily consumes from within. Miller has said the play's plot was taken from a true story he was told by a Brooklyn dockworker. And in retelling the tale of how a man's obsession with the niece he raised from childhood compels him to commit self-annihilating acts of betrayal, the play exerts the sure but stealthy hold of an account of a murder found in the back pages of a newspaper that fixes itself in your imagination.
Like Barry Edelstein's production of "All My Sons" at the Roundabout last season, this revival at the theater's Criterion Center Stage Right reminds us of what an utterly absorbing storyteller Miller can be and of the now largely neglected virtues of narrative theater. The play makes a point of disclosing the nature of its ending in its opening moments, but that in no way relaxes the grip it has on you.
The effect is to intensify the attention you give the mundane exchanges between Eddie, his wife, Beatrice (Allison Janney), and their niece, Catherine (Brittany Murphy) in the play's early scenes. As with most Greek tragedies, you assume the role of a detective, looking for clues after the fact.
The central plot is raw and basic. Marco (Adam Trese) and Rodolpho (Gabriel Olds) are Beatrice's relatives from Italy who have entered the United States illegally to seek work and are staying with the Carbones. When Catherine takes a liking to the vivacious Rodolpho, Eddie's anger goes well beyond avuncular protectiveness and leads him to commit ruinous actions.
Although Miller has written that he wanted to avoid pure naturalism in relating this story, the performances here are affecting precisely for their slice-of-life exactitude. LaPaglia, the wonderfully bull-like suitor in the recent revival of "The Rose Tattoo," brings to Eddie a charisma-magnified man-in-the-street quality that never condescends to the character.
This Eddie is an unreflective bulwark of a man whose internal stirrings of misplaced lust and jealousy appear to attack him arbitrarily and by surprise. He's confused, uncomfortable, defensive, as though he is suffering from a terminal cancer he refuses to believe in, even as he feels the pain of it. The degrees of repressed explosiveness LaPaglia conveys sitting in a chair, which is what he does through a lot of the play, are astonishing.
Ms. Janney, in a dazzling shift from the wry sophisticate of last season's "Present Laughter," is every bit as good as the wife who sees all too clearly where Eddie's affections for Catherine are leading him. Watch how Ms. Janney's Beatrice modulates her own deep-seated fear and resentment with a willed air of practicality, the fraying self-containment she brings to her role as a mediator in the family conflicts.
She and LaPaglia are beautifully set off by the youthful effervescence of Ms. Murphy and Olds, who seem destined to be together by sheer force of metabolism. (As soon as Olds walks on stage, Rodolpho's temperamental conflict with Eddie seems as fixed as a law of physics.) And Trese is excellent in finding an understated dignity and sense of menace in Marco.
Under Mayer's finely calibrated direction, this production seems to meet every requisite Miller might desire. The correlation with classical tragedy is directly evoked by David Gallo's amphitheater-inspired set, with curved tiers of steps overlooking the circle where the principal action takes place.
The sense of a judgmental community, which Miller insists is central to the play, is vividly embodied by the large ensemble of extras who fill the stage between scenes. And Kenneth Posner's shadowy lighting seems to locate the emotions the characters often don't dare express.
But above all, it's the stark but subtly drawn physicality of these characters that sears itself onto the memory: the repeated, frustrated gestures of reaching out, either to wound or console; the defiant challenges implicit in the postures of people who have shared close quarters for too long. (The boxing lesson gone wrong between Eddie and Rodolpho becomes a metaphor for the play's very structure.)
When the climactic face-offs, which include one of the most shocking kisses in stage history, finally occur, they seem as inevitable as they are unsettling. Miller, Mayer and this top-flight cast have indeed found the tragic muse in a kitchen sink in Brooklyn.
With all the subtlety of a longshoreman, Michael Mayer's revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" sinks into some very troubled waters. After his fine work this season on "Triumph of Love" and "Baby Anger," the director seems intent on doing for the Miller melodrama what Stephen Daldry did three years back for the British warhorse "An Inspector Calls," but the attempt at reinvigoration fails. "Bridge" merely spans the short distance between noise and portentousness.
Largely miscast and often badly acted, this Roundabout Theater revival does little to bolster the position of this play in the Miller canon. Greek tragedy by way of social realism, the 1955 "Bridge" doesn't hold up very well, its speechy pretensions and moralizing excessive even by the era's standards.
And Mayer knows it. Rather than try to skirt the play's demode trappings, Mayer indulges and even exaggerates them, much the way "An Inspector Calls" turned a creaky mystery into an impressive display of director's theater. But here, the moody spotlights and foreboding speeches just seem stagy. Worse, they seem silly.
A postwar tragedy, "Bridge" is the story of Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie (Anthony LaPaglia), a good man with one big flaw: He loves Catherine (Brittany Murphy), his 17-year-old niece by marriage, way too much. Eddie and wife Beatrice (Allison Janney) have raised the girl since childhood, and the goodhearted uncle's feelings for his tight-sweatered niece are blossoming just as surely as the young girl's womanhood.
Household tension builds when two cousins from Sicily arrive to stay with Eddie and family. Rodolpho (Gabriel Olds), the younger of the two illegal immigrants, takes an interest in Catherine (and vice versa), and Eddie responds by whispering rumors that the blond-haired, rather flamboyant Rodolpho is a homosexual desiring Catherine only for green-card reasons. When that fails, Eddie resorts to harsher measures, breaking a Sicilian code by ratting on his kinsmen to the immigration men.
Eddie's betrayal leads most tragically to his own downfall, of course, an outcome preordained not only by the play's Greek conventions but by the weighty foreshadowing forced upon the audience by the narrator, lawyer Alfieri (Stephen Spinella). "I knew where he was heading," Alfieri intones early on, as if the audience didn't.
Spinella, miscast as the gruff, grim lawyer, effects a come-and-go Brooklynese, and both Murphy (as the niece) and Olds (as her immigrant suitor) wildly overact in a production that takes ethnic caricature to ludicrous extremes. The Italian immigrants, with their mama-mia accents, are Sicily via Central Casting.
Fortunately, LaPaglia and Janney are more convincing as Eddie and Beatrice. With his stocky build, sandpaper voice and dewy, jittery eyes, LaPaglia provides a firm center for the production, playing Eddie as a guilt-ridden guy who sacrifices everything without quite understanding why. Janney, playing the wife as a frowzy, desperate woman fighting a losing battle, lends some honest emotion to the surrounding affectation.
Mayer stages the main action on a circular playing space, with dockworkers and neighbors often perched on bleacher-type seats at the periphery. David Gallo's set intentionally, and more than a little ham-fistedly, suggests a Greek amphitheater, with the large, overwrought ensemble playing chorus. The busy staging repeatedly sends the cast up and down the aisles of the theater, a ploy that, like the too-dramatic lighting and ominous music, just gets in the way of this "View."