NEW YORK — And just like that, Ivo van Hove cements his place irrefutably among the most revolutionary theater makers of our time.
Because in its elemental economy, its flashes of uncanny insight, his revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” from London’s Young Vic, is simply staggering. The story of Eddie Carbone, the proud Brooklyn longshoreman who implodes under the pressure of urges he cannot comprehend, barrels to a finish here with all of the disorienting impact of a high-velocity collision. As a result, Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, where the production had its official opening Thursday night, is a required destination for any pilgrim whose object of worship is serious drama.
Belgian-born director van Hove, known for his pretty, and pretty wild, stage conceits — whether he’s placing the action of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in a bathtub or turning Sophocles’s “Antigone” into a veritable wind-blown perfume commercial — on this occasion goes another way. Into an elegantly empty pit he forces Miller’s working-class characters, for a series of increasingly gut-clenching encounters that culminate in what only can be described as a soaking, crimson scrum. The simple set by designer Jan Versweyveld consists of nothing more than a box whose perimeter is ringed by a low-slung, see-through bench.
Yet, visually, it’s more than enough. Thanks to the precision-guided performances of Mark Strong as Eddie, and the seven actors who spar with him over the production’s 110 intermission-less minutes, we get to see these people with a beguiling clarity, and far more clearly than they are ever able to see themselves. (That a goodly chunk of the audience sits directly on the stage adds to the sense of human behavior under intensely close scrutiny.)
And just as importantly, through Miller’s starkly poetic language, we hear them fully. So intent is van Hove on having us concentrate on the text that among his radical acts is to eliminate Italian accents for the play’s immigrant brothers, Marco (Michael Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey); both actors are splendid. If you’ve ever seen this play in thrilling form before — its last Broadway incarnation, an excellent 2010 version directed by Gregory Mosher, won Scarlett Johansson a featured-actress Tony — the plain American intonations of Marco and Rodolpho will initially be disconcerting. Soon enough, though, they are no more missed than are the sticks of realistic furniture that usually fill the Carbones’ home, or even the shoes the characters normally wear. (In van Hove’s stripped-down ring, they go barefoot.)
It is the fresh-off-the-boat arrival of Marco and Rodolpho, strapping relatives of Eddie’s wife Beatrice (the superb Nicola Walker), that sets the restless Eddie off on a path to betrayal — a theme that Miller also explores in “The Crucible.” The growing attraction between Rodolpho and Eddie’s niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox), who also lives under the Carbones’ roof, throws Eddie into turmoil. Catherine’s habit of jumping excitedly into Eddie’s arms may have stirred something other than avuncular feelings in Eddie, a response she’s not conscious of. Or is she? One of the more intriguing aspects of the production is the possibilities it raises about characters other than Eddie who are also not fully in control of themselves, and who also bear responsibility for the play’s terrible turn of events. Fox is a marvel here at conveying the ambiguities in Catherine’s nature, at whether she on some level senses Eddie’s unhealthy interest and, either to please or perhaps even punish him, unconsciously encourages it.
Or do Eddie’s unresolved feelings extend even more complexly, to the newcomers in his household? The question explodes inside the box, in a pair of impulsively aggressive acts, each executed stunningly by the physically imposing, ideally-named Strong. The moments are so effective that they draw gasps from the audience, signals Eddie has broken a taboo that remains as fraught and powerful today as when the play was first performed in the mid-1950s.
Strong manages the astonishing illusion of standing commandingly at the center of the play and at the same time, seeming not to know the first thing about himself. It’s a terrifying psychic void–as vacant as that box.
The fine contributions extend to every member of the ensemble, including Michael Gould as the lawyer, Alfieri, to whom Eddie appeals for help, and who from time to time addresses the audience directly. The narrator device can feel arch, even sermonizing, in some productions, but there’s a special urgency to this Alfieri that binds him potently to the proceedings. He’s no mere observer of the unfolding sorrows; he’s a witness with a stake in what happens so vital he almost seems able to taste the tragedy. Just like us.
A View from the Bridge
By Arthur Miller. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Set and lighting, Jan Versweyveld; costumes, An D’Huys; sound, Tom Gibbons. With Richard Hansell, Thomas Michael Hammond. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Tickets, $20-$135. At Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.