Peter Marks on the Broadway revival of 'A View From the Bridge'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

When Liev Schreiber's fingers ever so tenderly brush the cheek of Scarlett Johansson early on in the crackling revival of "A View From the Bridge," you pick up the gentlest hints of a gathering disturbance, one that is sure to shatter both a Brooklyn home and a Broadway audience.

Schreiber is Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman of blunt sentences and unsettled needs. Johansson plays his 17-year-old niece, Catherine, a fetching outer-borough girl living with Eddie and wife Beatrice (Jessica Hecht), in seeming obliviousness to the carnal hold she has on Eddie. In the remarkable interplay of these three superbly cast actors, director Gregory Mosher unfolds the gripping core of Arthur Miller's sleek modern tragedy, a piece that stands up to the fiercest dramas that this playwright ever conjured.

Surely the production, which had its official opening Sunday night at the Cort Theatre, is one of the most satisfying evenings of Miller in memory. Washington audiences will recall Mosher's sensitive guidance of Sally Field and company in the Kennedy Center's July 2004 revival of Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie." In similar fashion, Mosher's "Bridge" expertly unspools the discord engendered in a family by a head of household lacking the gift of self-knowledge.

If you're mistrustful, though, of theater that seeks to impart a moral, Miller can seem, even in his most celebrated plays like "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," somewhat high-handed. "A View From the Bridge," with the cold gaze it casts on Eddie's actions -- after Catherine finds love, he vengefully turns government snitch -- does fall prey at times to the dramatist's zealous self-righteousness. (While some of his peers turned informers, Miller famously refused to name names during the McCarthyite red-baiting witch hunts of the 1950s.)

Yet little of this pontificating tendency seeps intrusively onto the stage of the Cort, even when the play's omniscient character -- a general-practice Red Hook lawyer played by Michael Cristofer -- is dictating the evening's dramatic boundaries. "Justice," Cristofer's Alfieri tells us portentously in the opening moments, "is very important here."

Yup, we get it: We're here for a lesson. Maybe it's the intensity of alarm sounded by the crisp and persuasive Cristofer, but this time around, the narration is fairly effective in helping to establish the groundwork for sorrow. Although they date the piece, Alfieri's lengthy asides also envelop the work's concerns in a sense of occasion, of matters that are larger than those that play out in the Carbones' drab habitat.

The breakdown that this "Bridge" illuminates is of a troubled man whose heart becomes untethered from reason. And the performances affirm the case for the story as a big event. The tragedy is set in motion by Eddie's jealousy over the household's new arrivals: two young men, relatives of Beatrice, who are given refuge in his house, depicted in the worn upholstery and other realistic furnishings of John Lee Beatty's inventive turntable set.

After entering the country illegally from their native Italy, genial Marco (Corey Stoll) and his charming, flaxen-haired brother Rodolpho (Morgan Spector) have come to work on the docks. The arrangement turns ominous, however, after Rodolpho falls for Johansson's Catherine, who's stunned to find herself ensnared in Eddie's tormented longing, a desire Eddie is incapable of acknowledging.

Schreiber is nothing short of remarkable as Eddie. If you've also seen him do Shakespeare, or Mamet, or even play the cross-dressing head of security in last summer's big-screen "Taking Woodstock," you know his talent ranges more widely than almost any actor of his generation. Carbone translates from the Italian as coal or charcoal, and the idea of a combustible lump animates every facet of Schreiber's portrayal. He manages to make Eddie's decisions -- whether to pick up a phone and dial immigration, or to lash out in an act of sexual frustration -- seem the explosive products of an urge beyond the control of the intellect.

Hecht, a New York stage stalwart who appeared most recently in the short-lived Broadway revival of "Brighton Beach Memoirs," is an ideal counterpoint to Schreiber. Hers is a deeply sympathetic Beatrice, a touchstone for us, a woman not prepared to be written off by Eddie. She infuses this long-suffering wife with both a burning devotion to her husband and an understanding of exactly what's transpiring under her nose.

Stoll lights his own appealing fire under Marco, and Spector -- upgraded from understudy after an injury forced actor Santino Fontana to withdraw -- gives a likable account of Rodolpho, whose easygoing nature rattles Eddie to the marrow. The surprising achievement belongs to Johansson, who proves to be capable of far more than collaborating in eyebrow-raising star casting. She's got the broad vowels and engaging innocence for Catherine, and she makes you believe in the teenager's flickering awareness of Eddie's inappropriate attraction. And even after Catherine's allegiance shifts to Rodolpho, the actress allows you to appreciate fully the pull she still feels toward Eddie, how, perhaps, that might have deepened Eddie's confusion.

The acumen on display raises the Cort's thermostat from what might have been coolly sobering to positively scorching. You'll leave, happy to have felt the theatrical heat.

A View From the Bridge

By Arthur Miller. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Scott Lehrer; hair and wigs, Tom Watson. With Robert Turano, Joe Ricci, Matthew Montelongo, Anthony DeSando, Marco Verna. About 2 hours. Through April 4 at Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. Visit or call 212-239-6200.

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