Theater Review: Miller Made Minimal by Ivo van Hove, in A View From the Bridge

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Critics, if not theatergoers, often bemoan the tide of revivals flooding Broadway each fall. This season, the ratio of old plays to new is about two to one. But why should revivals be considered a curse? Hamlet has not cloyed in its 400 years on the boards, nor has American ­Buffalo in 40. And it’s not as if the second coming of, say, Sylvia was blocking the arrival of some new masterpiece; ­producers who smell money are usually agnostic as to provenance. The only really relevant questions to ask when a play keeps returning are what made it so important in the first place and what the new production offers. Oh, and one more: Do the answers to those first two questions align?

They don’t, quite, in the stirring and muscular Young Vic revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, now at the Lyceum. Which is not to say that Ivo van Hove’s application of avant-garde froufrou damages, or even obscures, the original. It is still, quite legibly, a story about the nature of justice in a society gradually ceding the primacy of clan to that of law. Eddie Carbone, a Brooklyn longshoreman only dimly acquainted with his unconscious, has an incestuous fixation on his wife’s orphan niece, Catherine, whom the couple has raised since early childhood. Now a ripe young woman, Catherine unwittingly sets the scene for tragedy by falling in love with one of the two Italian brothers the Carbones are hiding illegally in their apartment. The romance between Catherine and the debonair Rodolpho inflames Eddie, delaminating his social exterior and propelling him into the kind of ­perfidy and rage that might have been de rigueur in the house of Atreus but that modern society, more just than pure, can no longer tolerate. No wonder the ­narrator of the play, Alfieri, who tries to prevent the tragedy but like a Greek chorus cannot, is a lawyer.

This is the fourth Broadway production of A View From the Bridge since it premiered as a one-act verse drama in 1955. That version flopped. (Brooks Atkinson found it underwritten and overambitious, saying that Miller was “straining for all the altitudes he can reach, and he is an uncommonly tall man.”) But a revision for London the following year, in which the chastened playwright filled out the story, expanded it to two acts, and recast the poetry as prose, has in the last several decades accrued the reputation of a master­piece. I certainly find it so. In its relocating of classic drama to working-class Red Hook, it both elevates the conflicts of modern people and brings the themes of Greek tragedy down to earth. Even de-
versified, the language is astonishingly pungent, not only with its Brooklyn patois (“So what kinda work did yiz do?”) but also in its metaphoric vigor (“He’s a rat! He belongs in the sewer! He bites people when they sleep!”). More so even than in Death of a Salesman, the action is tightly focused, so precipitous that it sometimes seems you’re on an elevator whose cables have been cut. And for all its philosophical heft, the play renders its climactic moments — including the chair trick that ends Act One — in brilliantly theatrical terms.

Van Hove’s production drops the intermission and runs about two hours. All of the usual demarcations of action and space have been stripped away. Jan ­Versweyveld’s­ set consists mostly of an empty white square in the middle of the stage with a Plexiglas ledge at its perimeter. From the orchestra section of the Lyceum, it looks like a Tiffany’s vitrine. (Banks of onstage seating, for $135, rise to the left and right as well.) The lack of clutter is certainly chic, but without the furniture and props Miller specified, some points are unclear. Would someone new to the play understand, without the whiskey bottles liberated as a Christmas “gift” from a ship in port, that during the fateful confrontation between Eddie, Rodolpho, and Catherine, Eddie is drunk? Without a knife, do we even really know who dies at the end? Clearly, van Hove is less interested in these specifics than in the larger themes they were designed to express. To render that largeness, he borrows grandeur wherever he can — most notably from the Fauré Requiem, which accompanies part of the action. (The ominously buzzy sound design is by Tom Gibbons.) And he makes sure, with a final coup de théâtre, that even if we don’t know what became of the principals, we will never forget it.

It may be a clue to van Hove’s agenda that, at the same time as he concentrates the intensity of the play, he minimizes its specific contours. The costumes by An D’Huys are deliberately neutral and out of period. (Catherine’s skirt, which Eddie says is too short, really is; it would have been all but unwearable in the 1950s.) Nor is this production’s Eddie by any means the “husky, slightly overweight” longshoreman Miller described; the men’s bodies, which we see for some reason in a shower scene, and elsewhere, are those of gym-honed contemporary actors. It must also be deliberate that the actors use a variety of non-Brooklyn, non-Italian accents that obscure the locale as surely as their bare feet somehow obscure the era. The cutting and combining of several smaller roles (neighbors, co-workers) similarly serve to isolate the characters that remain, turning them into no-­context icons. What van Hove is offering, quite brilliantly, is a timeless agon, performed as a ritual by actors whose own humanity is at least as important as that of the characters Miller actually wrote. Or rewrote; Miller’s revisions show him pushing A View From the Bridge toward individual drama, whereas van Hove’s push the other way.

What makes this slight misfit of play and production finally unimportant is that the actors are so devastatingly good. Their habit of fealty to character as defined by dialogue survives the director’s effacements. Mark Strong may be styled to look like a neutral Everyman of the past or future, but, in his bearing and cadence and anguish and bafflement, he is only Red Hook’s Eddie Carbone, in full tragic tilt. Phoebe Fox makes Catherine’s transition from baby doll to furious womanhood thrillingly transparent, just as Nicola Walker, as Eddie’s wife, Beatrice, shows how every hopeful choice she and Eddie have made now closes in on her like a trap. (For once, Beatrice and Catherine actually look like aunt and niece.) The Italian brothers, Marco (Michael Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey), are both excellent in difficult roles, and Michael Gould makes of Alfieri the perfectly regretful guide. Some of the credit for the cast’s superb work obviously belongs to van Hove; he knew he needed actors who could stand up to his powerful, showy interventions. It’s a fair trade; those interventions probably made this revival viable. Still, one looks on them, and on van Hove’s upcoming Broadway production of The ­Crucible with, as Alfieri says, “a certain alarm.”