January 9, 2016
Arthur Miller, Mark Strong: 'A view from the bridge'
(Lyceum Theater, Manhattan, dir. Ivo van Hove, until Feb. 21)
Catharsis. The London Young Vic's revival production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge (1956) is a mesmerizing theater experience that echoes Greek tragedy as Athenian theatergoers must have felt it. In its conception, mid-twentieth century playwright Miller demonstrated that the American Common Man and the Greek Hero inhabit the same world, whatever differences of time, place and culture. To see this play is to recognize again Miller's achievement -- connecting modern America with universal history. America may be a uniquely exceptional experiment in democratic life but it's also viscerally embedded in the evolution of human civilization, a product of the very life force it strains to dominate. Willy Loman in his way fought the same battles as Achilles.
Set in 1950s Brooklyn (thus "A view from the bridge" is the Brooklyn Bridge), this would be an attractive performance in any case. But the production is lifted out of time by Mark Strong's no holds barred, riveting portrayal of Eddie Cambone, second-generation Italian, longshoreman and anguished good man heading irresistibly toward his fate: death in an honor killing at the hands of an illegal immigrant, his wife's nephew, he's taken into his home.
Only rarely is such compelling theatrical power on offer. In my rather eccentric experience, two comparisons come to mind. The first was the 2003 production, I Am My Own Wife, with Jefferson Mays, the true story of a mis-gendered man who was somehow allowed by authorities to live a life in Berlin as a transvestite woman known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a professional antiquarian no less, all through the Nazi and Communist years, dying peaceably at 74 years old in 2002 as a citizen of unified Germany. The second was F. Murray Abraham's portrayal of Shylock in a kind of neighborhood 2011 production of Merchant of Venice at the Schimmel Center at Pace University in lower Manhattan. (Abraham played Salieri in Amadeus, the life of Mozart.) A third was Daniel Day-Lewis's unforgettable portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, in the eponymous 2012 film. But in film there are retakes. Theater is different, a nightly high-wire act.
Any night at the theater may be wonderful but it's necessary to be up close to see what's really going on, to witness transformation, the absolute conviction that one person -- even, rather especially at such proximity -- becomes someone else. (At that point one wonders whether the actor has the same feeling or is always aware of the illusion.) I Am My Own Wife, for example, was, from a near-on orchestra seat, a two-hour spell-binding soliloquy with Mays not for an instant out of character, drawing the audience into a world it couldn't have imagined even to the point of a cultured, now aged German woman's accented, intonated English. In The Merchant, from a second row seat in a small theater, I saw Murray Abraham disappear into the character of Shylock for a couple of hours, amidst a group of other players obviously "acting."
Seen from an on-stage seat close at hand, the experience of Strong's performance in A View From the Bridge is identical: everyone else seemed to be acting. The Englishman, wielding a pitch-perfect Brooklyn accent, disappeared. He became, he was Eddie Carbone, his face a perpetually hulking mass of confused 1950s American working class anguish. Looking into Strong's eyes as he sat slumped, looking confused, trying to think hard or stomping around, acting out, he was self-evidently living Carbone's inner life. Not for a second did his attention wander or was he out of character in his uncomprehending, self-imploding fury. (In fact, Nicola Walker, playing his wife, Beatrice, was most convincing when for a moment or two she seemed actually afraid of Strong's Carbone.)
Eddie Carbone's situation is the drama of a good man, hardworking but stymied, realistic about life's hardships but psychologically confounded, caught in a web of relationships that become his fate. A death foretold. It's a story about the inner life of illegal immigration as it involves both young Sicilian immigrants and the Italian-American extended family in Brooklyn that takes them in. One thinks immediately of Frederick Wiseman's new documentary, In Jackson Heights (2015), which evokes similar stories about Hispanic immigration into that famous Queens neighborhood. Not much changes in these stories, and one thing in particular: for all our faults and sins, people from around the globe still want to get to America, or "America." And Arthur Miller's genius as a playwright is an example of what can happen when you are born here or get here.