Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge is an urgent and arrestingly simple play. A middle-aged longshoreman named Eddie Carbone (James Black) falls into a forbidden love with his teenage niece. Blinded by an Oedipal-like inability to know himself and his desires, Eddie tries to stop the girl from growing up. He tells himself and everyone around him that he just wants to keep her safe, but his desires are ultimately bared. What follows is of course a tragedy -- one of Aristotelian proportions.
This spare and brutally elegant play is filled with such big-fisted power that it needs little more than a first-rate cast to make it work. In fact, too much theatricality, too much noise and chest-thumping over this story will only muck it up and push it past its tragic underpinnings and into the arena of melodrama.
And that's exactly what happens in the Alley's season opener, with director Stephen Rayne thumping his chest the hardest and loudest of them all.
The biggest stars of this production appear to be the sets and sound. There's enough pyrotechnic hoo-ha here to put together a live-theater version of Die Hard IV. Hugh Landwehr's striking set of dark scaffolding, made to look like the innards of a ship or a dirty neighborhood, is gorgeous. But the way it is manipulated becomes frustrating. The main playing area, Eddie's Brooklyn tenement flat, sits on an enormous gray platform that has been fitted with trainlike wheels so that it can move down center stage. The first time this happens it's marvelous. The cityscape breaks apart, opening up to the beaten-down human world inside all that steel. Eddie's sad little brown apartment slowly trundles down center stage. The metaphor is powerful -- initially. But slowly it gets lost in its own endless repetition. Over and over the apartment is sent upstage and downstage, upstage and downstage. Every time the scene changes there goes that apartment moving slowly behind the cityscape.
Lots of noise covers up the time it takes for that apartment to finally arrive or disappear. Period pop tunes (the play is set in the 1950s) blare from every corner of the theater. They are silly songs that connect with the scenes on the surface and oftentimes at an ironic level. At Christmas time we hear a happy, bebop "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," though we are about to witness Eddie's horrifying crash and burn. The dramatic irony that Miller so carefully builds into his script (we know Eddie lusts after his niece even if he can't admit it) is crushed by these ironic musical interludes imposed upon the script by this production. In fact, the tone of the play is so damaged in the Alley's version that opening night's audience laughed at some of Miller's most tragic moments. They did so, in part, because they had been instructed to by the upbeat music.
The other noteworthy piece of Malcolm Nicholls's sound design comes in the form of doomsday noise, a growling trainlike sound that comes out of nowhere. As Eddie moves closer to his tragic end, the strange noise gets louder and louder. Clearly this grumbling is supposed to signify to us lunkheads in the audience that something very, very bad is about to happen. But this device is altogether too easy. There is enough dramatic intensity in the script to build tension, given the right cast.
Unfortunately some of the performers were so painfully miscast and so strangely directed that were it not for that doomsday noise, the audience might not realize that A View from the Bridge is tragic. Eddie's niece, Catherine (Sabrina Veroczi), is a complex and difficult role. Raised by Eddie (James Black) and her aunt, Beatrice (Annalee Jefferies), Catherine is an orphan who needs love. But she also needs to be out of her dangerous uncle's home. Her salvation comes along one night in the form of swashbuckling Rodolpho (Chris Henry Coffey), an illegal Italian immigrant.
Catherine is driven by desperation and by her own teenage hormones. "Teach me. I don't know anything hold me," she tells Rodolpho. But she's also a good Italian-American girl who wants Eddie's blessing. She wants to love Rodolpho and Eddie at once, a desire that becomes impossible in the face of Eddie's growing obsession. Madonna-like Catherine must choose between them. It is an enormously compelling conflict. But Veroczi's flat-footed Catherine seems merely confused where she should be brokenhearted, and befuddled where she should be enraged. There is not enough emotional versatility and nuance, not enough delicacy of carriage and voice to capture the fierce struggle happening inside Catherine.
Worse, Veroczi gets no help from Coffey's confused Rodolpho. Coffey matches the qualities of the role by being blond, funny and even charismatic, all qualities Rodolpho, but any feelings for Catherine are not evident. Indeed, the utter lack of chemistry between Coffey and Veroczi does as much damage to this production as the goofy songs between scenes.
There are only two compelling reasons to see the Alley play: the performances of Jefferies and Black.
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In the role of the middle-aged Beatrice who loves her Eddie in spite of his strange obsession, Jefferies manages to create a character both sympathetic and frustrating. Beatrice, the one person who can help Catherine, is smart enough to figure out what's wrong with Eddie, but not smart enough to know how to fix it. Beatrice's reasonable quest to make things right eventually disintegrates into a desperate fight to get back the life she once had. Beatrice's pain is obvious in Jefferies's smallest gestures, her fist clenched upon the chair back, her chin held firm against the inevitable doom of Eddie's betrayal.
Black's Eddie is also powerful. He is wonderfully subtle in the role of a stubborn bull who cannot come to grips with what is burning inside him. He wants to believe he is driven by paternal righteousness and seems horrified at any other suggestion. He steals sideways glances at Catherine, unable to look openly at his own desires. As played by Black, Eddie is an ordinary workaday stiff consumed by a mythic-size passion so hot he is driven to do the unthinkable.
As good as these two performers are, they cannot make up for the lack of passion between Catherine and Rodolpho. And they cannot outshine the bells and whistles of the set and sound. This finely wrought script has been twisted out of shape by an overachieving director and designers who fly so far beyond the mark that this play becomes unrecognizable in their hands.
A View from the Bridge runs through October 23 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, (713)228-8421. $32-$49.