The tic I find annoying in the work of very busy director Ivo van Hove is happily suppressed for his revival of A View From the Bridge, birthday-boy Arthur Miller's unrelenting, as usual, play. That's why I don't hesitate to call this production the best he's ever targeted for the theater-going public.
The tic to which I refer is van Hove's habit of examining plays -- by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, Ingmar Bergman (in his case, the Scenes From a Marriage film)--for their subtexts so that he then can baldly stage the subtext(s) he's discerned. Others may find the approach adventurous, involving. I find it uncalled for and, really, indefensible.
The reason he shifts gears for A View From the Bridge, at the Lyceum, may be because Miller beat him to it. The playwright wasn't reticent about stressing his respect for Greek tragedy, and nowhere more bluntly than he flaunts it here. The harrowing opus begins with a lawyer called Alfieri (Michael Gould), who could just as easily be called Chorus, talking about "destiny."
So following Miller's lead, van Hove strips away any extraneous embellishments -- like, say, a realistic set -- and simply presents his contemporary version of a Greek tragedy. His View From the Bridge is played within a square space approximately the size of a boxing-ring that van Hove's usual set designer Jan Versweyveld borders with a low Lucite wall on which the characters can sit when the need arises. There's an upstage wall with a single door centered in it.
Versweyveld also constructs bleachers to the right and left of the arena that when you think about them and their relationship to the auditorium seating, starts to suggest the form of an ancient theater.
Van Hove knows what he's doing, all right. Where I've often thought the playwrights he's toyed with would greatly disapprove of the toying, I suspect that were Miller to have seen this treatment, he would've applauded. As the actors aren't being asked to underline subtexts along with the text, they're free to play Miller's script to the utmost.
The story, for those who don't know it, concerns Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong), who's married to loving but nervous wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker). Her nerves are on edge because she doesn't know how to handle the situation taking shape now that her niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox), whom she's raised after her sister's death, is 17 and receiving un-paternal attentions from Eddie.
The smoldering problem becomes combustible when Beatrice's Italian cousins, who've entered the country illegally, move in temporarily in order to make money they'll send home. The older cousin, Marco (Michael Zegen), is married with children, but younger Rodolpho (Russell Tovey) is not only single but instantly catches Catherine's eye -- and she catches his.
Eddie notices the eye-catching and, denying any other motivation, begins finding fault with everything the sincere Rodolpho does -- singing aboard the ships they're working, cooking, making over a dress for Catherine. Refusing to relent under Beatrice's repeated requests, Eddie grows increasingly hostile to Rodolpho, something Marco is taking in and Rodolpho attempts futilely to handle.
The way Miller orchestrates this -- and van Hove directs the entanglement as if he's got so many barefoot combatants in the ring -- is masterful, not the least of his manipulations being the frequent mention of the local immigration office where others have turned in emigrés who've entered the country without papers.
Miller has worked his writing skills so well that he includes one unforgettable coup de theatre during a scene where Eddie is trying to convince Catherine that Rodolpho isn't the man she thinks he is. It's a development that never fails to produce gasps from the audience.
Van Hove adds a few of his own. One stems from casting Tovey, whose physique alone is used at one point to intimidate the intimidating Eddie. The other is a theatrical finale (not found in Miller's stage directions) that's so outrageous it shouldn't work but does. Nothing of it will be described here, not even any hints -- other to say that Versweyveld's lighting and Tom Gibbons's sound and consistent music inclusions plus other completely unexpected effects contribute to a truly sensational sequence.
It's not news to say that Miller wrote parts actors would sacrifice eyeteeth to sink their remaining teeth into -- and that goes for male and female actors. Frequently, the man and woman are married, which is the case this time. Though the set isn't naturalistic, the playing by Strong and Walker is.
Strong, who won last year's Olivier Award (the production started at the Young Vic before moving to the West End), is a model of modulation as he slowly and then more quickly is wrapped in Eddie's desperation. His becoming a cornered animal is the sort of thing you'd like to turn away from but can't.
Walker's Beatrice isn't unlike Death of a Salesman's Linda Loman in that she wants to stand by her man but can't get through to him. Walker is excellent at conveying Beatrice's conflicting frustrations. Everyone else is as good as she. When their moments flare, they take full advantage, and that goes for Fox's forced-to-mature Catherine, Gould's pitying but stoic Alfieri, Zegen's quietly watchful Marco, Tovey's forthright Rodolpho and Richard Hansell as Eddie's friend and coworker Louis.
A View From the Bridge is presented without intermission, which seems appropriate. When it was first shown in 1955, it was paired with another one-act, the now rarely seen but marvelous A Memory of Two Mondays. Subsequently, Miller expanded A View From the Bridge because, it appears, he wanted to make more of its theme of destiny, of fate, of inevitability. Once Eddie gives in to his mounting jealousy and impenetrable denial, he's a goner of a tragic protagonist. Miller puts it out there without wasting a word , and van Hove maximizes every one.
N. B.: I called Miller a birthday boy up above because we're reaching the end of his centennial year, and suddenly we're hearing from him plenty. This week alone A View From the Bridge and Incident at Vichy, at The Pershing Square Signature Center, are brought back to confirm the dramatist's undeniable significance. Also available, at the Castillo, is the Yiddish translation of Death of a Salesman. Shortly to follow is van Hove's take on The Crucible.