This is not a pretty view. It is dirty, gritty and painful to look at. But it is so captivating, so completely engrossing, that no matter how hard you try, you can’t look away.
The brilliantly acted, skillfully executed production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, currently in performances at the Cort Theatre, breathes a sense of life and urgency into the sometimes heavy-handed script, infusing it with a nervous anxiety that pulses through every scene.
Miller’s play, inspired by an act of betrayal during the Red scare, invites the audience to view the domestic unrest that takes place in the Carbone family. The Italian-American Eddie (played by Liev Schreiber) and his wife Beatrice (Jessica Hecht) live in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the 1950s. Childless themselves, Eddie and Beatrice have raised their niece Catherine (Scarlett Johansson, making her Broadway debut) as their daughter. Eddie works at the docks as a longshoreman. The three live in apparent domestic peace, despite their cramped quarters, until Beatrice’s cousins arrive from Italy, hoping to find work in America.
Despite Eddie’s claim that he is honored to welcome the immigrants into his home, what had been cozy quickly becomes chaotic and friendly affection becomes latent, passionate anger as Eddie’s paternal affection and protective tendencies towards Catherine are revealed to be much darker and deeper than they appear. As Catherine and Rodolpho (played by Morgan Spector) begin spending time together, Eddie’s protective tendencies become obsessive. When the two go to the movies together, he paces the corner outside his apartment, waiting for them to return. When Rodolpho entertains the family by singing, to Catherine’s apparent delight, Eddie silences him, warning him that it may arouse suspicion if the neighbors hear him. He becomes so desperate to prevent the two from marrying that he visits a lawyer, who tells him the only way to stop the wedding would be to commit an act of dishonor and betrayal that, at first, Eddie considers impossible.
It is Eddie’s lawyer (played by Michael Cristofer), who also narrates the play, serving as a one-man Greek chorus. While the role is performed ably by Cristofer, the part itself is unnecessary in this production. This family is so real, the energy between them is so pulsing and vital, that there is no need for an outsider to tell us that Eddie is doomed. We already know.
This feeling, which is so strong it is almost tangible, is the credit of the cast, all of whom are truly excellent. Schreiber’s performance as Eddie doesn’t seem to be a performance at all. He inhabits the role of Eddie seamlessly, and, apparently effortlessly. Despite Eddie’s carefully relaxed appearance, whether leaning against a dirty brick wall or sipping a beer in his tattered armchair, could easily fool the casual observer, but Schreiber deliberately takes it much deeper. Watching Eddie’s face as Catherine and Rodolpho dance or walk arm in arm in the street, one can observe the muted anger and passion he is struggling to contain as well as sense that an explosion is inevitably approaching.
Schreiber is ably matched by Hecht, who gives a strong performance as his fretful, capable wife Beatrice. Quite aware of the turbulent emotions in her home, Beatrice does whatever she can to handle it quietly. This downtrodden woman is played sensitively by Hecht, and when she erupts in a painful howl of agony in the final moments of the show, her pain is tangible.
Johansson follows suit as Catherine, giving a humble, yet powerful performance. Wearing high-colored, tightly buttoned shirts and skirts that fall far below the knee, but are still referred to as too high by Eddie, the screen star known for roles characterized by beauty and sex appeal is nowhere to be found onstage. Instead, we see an innocent girl from Brooklyn who simply wants everyone around her to be happy, all the while unaware of the grief and sorrow she is inadvertently causing. She longs to break free from her family and be a woman, but she knows that doing so will pain her uncle deeply. A natural onstage, Johansson even holds her own in scenes alone with Schreiber, a notably large presence both emotionally and physically.
The muted strength of the cast is personified in the setting, with grim, dingy backgrounds and faded, shabby furniture. The set revolves, moving smoothly from a dark street to the shabby apartment to a lawyer’s office furnished with nothing other than a bare desk and two hard chairs. Nothing onstage is brightly colored other than Rodolpho’s blonde hair. And it doesn’t need to be.
The dark themes also foreshadow the play’s tragic ending, which echoes that of classical Greek tragedies. The desperate plights of ordinary people struggling to retain their dignity and their name also remind one of other works by Miller. But there is no need to compare A View From the Bridge to any other production of a play; this one stands firmly on its own.