'A View From the Bridge': Theater Review

Calling this intense doesn't even begin to describe it.
2/21/2016

Director of the moment Ivo van Hove's stunning reappraisal of the 1956 Arthur Miller drama is led by a staggering performance from Mark Strong.

High-rotation classic texts sometimes resurface on Broadway for inadequate reasons — often to provide a vehicle for a major star, whether or not the creative team has found valid new ways to illuminate the work. That's most definitely not the case with Belgian avant-garde director Ivo van Hove's riveting take on Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. The production ties the audience's stomachs in knots almost from the outset, and then inexorably tightens those knots with a ferocious sense of purpose and control over its unbroken two-hour duration. Performed by a sizzling ensemble led by Mark Strong, this is powerhouse theater that leaves you breathless.

The 1956 drama was last revived on Broadway in 2010, in a memorable production that starred Liev Schreiber as the dangerously single-minded Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone, opposite Scarlett Johansson, who won a Tony as Eddie's niece Catherine. Unlike that slow-burn, naturalistic staging, van Hove strips the play down to its raw bones. He rebuilds it as a fever dream of Greek tragedy, laying bare the characters’ desperation in a merciless light and with maximum volatility. Concerns about it being too soon to revisit the work evaporate in an instant.

The spartan production was first staged in London at the Young Vic in 2014 and then transferred to the West End in February, going on to win Olivier Awards for best revival, director and lead actor. It arrives on Broadway in time for the centenary of Miller's birth, and also kicks off a big season for van Hove, whose stark, radically modernized reinterpretations of noted texts have previously been seen at New York Theater Workshop and BAM. He returns to NYTW this month with Lazarus, a hotly anticipated collaboration with David Bowie and playwright Enda Walsh, and will be back on Broadway in February to premiere another Miller revival, The Crucible, its enticing cast headed by Saoirse Ronan, Sophie Okonedo, Ben Whishaw and Ciaran Hinds.

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Working with longtime design collaborator Jan Versweyveld, van Hove confines the action to an austere cubic playing space, flanked on either side by bleacher-style onstage audience seating. It's like an airless wrestling ring, bathed by Versweyveld in brooding light. The actors are barefoot, wearing period-nonspecific street clothing, and props are limited chiefly to a single wooden chair brought on at one point to provide a challenging display of strength for one character and to signal a defeat for Strong's Eddie. Underscoring is heard throughout, predominantly from Faure's Requiem, but also the nervous beats of minimalist composer Steve Reich's "Drumming" during moments of escalating dread.

This is very much directorial theater, and some will no doubt reject it as an overly portentous approach to a kitchen-sink drama that already can be seen as lacking in nuance or social relevance compared to, say, Death of a Salesman. Others might be bothered by its abstract rendering of a highly specific Italo-American blue-collar milieu. And its thunderous climactic coup de theatre will certainly not be to everyone's taste. But without lessening the value of more conventional presentations, van Hove's heightened operatic treatment locates a timeless sense of the pain, fear and helplessness of Miller's characters, with the play's portrait of implacable human nature eliciting feelings of both horror and pity.

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The one-man Greek chorus of Brooklyn lawyer Alfieri (Michael Gould), whose commentary can sometimes seem like superfluous narration, is more integrated into the action via the physical staging here. As he sets the scene, he's acknowledged with a suspicious glance from Eddie, seen showering at the end of a shift with his fellow waterfront worker Louis (Richard Hansell), their naked torsos wrapped in a hellish red cloud of steam. With his rangy, sinewy physique, Strong is a powerfully masculine presence, and when he returns home, 17-year-old Catherine (Phoebe Fox) flies at him like an overjoyed puppy, scrambling up his body as if she's climbing a tree. But what was no doubt innocent when she was a girl is inappropriate in its erotic charge now that she's an adult.

Eddie attempts to keep his tone light as he criticizes Catherine's too-short skirt and cautions about the looks she's getting from guys when she sashays down the street. But it's gravely obvious from their first moments together that his territorial feelings for this girl he raised as a daughter test the boundaries of avuncular affection. Eddie's wife, Beatrice, played with no-nonsense grit by the very fine Nicola Walker, sees it too, and despite laying down the law in blunt terms, she's powerless to stop it. The same goes for Alfieri, who recoils or crumples in despair from his observation point on the sidelines.

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The great skill of van Hove's production is how the director trains us, right from the opening scene, to watch every gesture, every flicker of a look, every subtle movement of a cast whose performances are remarkable for the seemingly unstudied yet surgical nature of their physicality. The production's extended silences, in particular, are transfixing. Alfieri refers more than once to Eddie's piercing stare ("His eyes were like tunnels"), and Strong's dark eyes do indeed seem to drill right into us, especially once his hold over Catherine is weakened by the arrival in the house of Beatrice's cousins Rodolpho (Russell Tovey) and Marco (Michael Zegen), illegal immigrants from Sicily. Given the inevitability of its explosive spiral of self-destruction, this is always an uncomfortable play to watch, and the director pushes that unease to extremes both punishing and thrilling.

Confronted with the clear evidence that handsome young Rodolpho will take Catherine away, Eddie displays an animal cunning in his efforts to discredit the Italian, suggesting that he sees her only as his passport to citizenship, and when that fails, questioning his sexuality. The threat of actual violence is equaled by the psychological certainty that Eddie will betray the moral codes of his family, his community and his class. When that happens, his continuing self-delusion — as he demands the respect and the good name to which he believes he's entitled — is played with wrenching effectiveness by Strong.

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By peeling away the real-world trappings, the production releases something primal in Miller's drama. And the fate closing in on each character becomes our collective fate as they clench together in a blood-drenched huddle.

Van Hove has Tovey and Zegen speak not with the accents of new arrivals from Italy, but instead with the same command as everyone else, perhaps indicating that the generation or two separating these characters from their shared background is a thin line. Tovey is terrific — placid, easygoing and resolutely optimistic even as the signs suggest he should be otherwise. But his pride is revealed as he angrily demands his right to be an American and to work, a basic dignity denied him in his homeland. Marco often seems almost a bystander in this play, but Zegen's quietly forceful characterization makes him as dark and driven as Eddie once he's wronged, his actions dictated by ancient codes pertaining to betrayal and retribution.

Walker, Gould and Fox are no less compelling, the latter as tough as Beatrice in her way, and yet quite touching in her insistence on playing down the approaching disaster until it's too late. One of Miller's strengths as a playwright was his acute insight into the knotty tangle of human involvement and its propensity to yield sorrow; this ensemble superbly captures that complexity of people isolated by their own anxieties while being pulled into a calamity that will scar them all. The fulcrum of that seething mass is Strong, who gives a performance of such coiled menace and blistering rage you wonder how he has anything left to carry him home at the end of the play.

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York
Cast: Mark Strong, Nicola Walker, Phoebe Fox, Russell Tovey, Michael Zegen, Michael Gould, Richard Hansell, Thomas Michael Hammond

Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Set & lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D’Huys
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Lincoln Center Theater, Eli Bush, Robert G. Bartner, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Roy Furman, Peter May, Amanda Lipitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, John Gore, Ruth Hendel, JFL Theatricals, Heni Koenigsberg, Jon B. Platt, Daryl Roth, Spring Sirkin

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