Complicated family dynamics mirroring thorny cultural concerns. Is there a playwright who comes to mind more than Arthur Miller when discussing this theatrical duo? What about the notion that heroes, specifically tragic ones, are most interesting when they hail not from the upper echelons of society but from among the everyday people who work, dream and struggle to eke out a satisfying, if common, life? Yup, that’d be Miller too.
But what if Miller also included a chorus, that traditional device in Greek tragedy, to comment on the action onstage and subtly connect what we see to larger moral implications? Well, that’s a bit different. It’s the framework of Miller’s classic 1955 play A View From the Bridge, the award-winning story (revived, put on screen and even turned into an opera) of Eddie Carbone, an Italian-American longshoreman, and his jealous fixation on his niece, Catherine.
Miller’s plays may lay claim to the senior citizen discount in age, but old as they may be, his classics are stories that resonate just as profoundly and relevantly today as they did when first produced. In A View From the Bridge, we know we have a masterful play ahead of us; the question remains if director Scott McWhirter and his cast at Theatre Southwest can do it justice.
“Eddie Carbone had never expected to have a destiny. A man works, raises his family, goes bowling, eats, gets old and then he dies. Now, as the weeks passed, there was a future and there was a trouble that would not go away.” These prophetic words come to us from Miller’s knowing chorus, Alfieri (a solid Scott Holmes), a respected lawyer who tends to the working-class locals living in the “gullet of New York” where the bay curves to meet the Brooklyn Bridge.
The trouble he’s talking about is introduced in the play’s first act. Early on, director Scott McWhirter, in a conservative staging of the story, sets a nicely clipped, naturalistic pace for us to watch Eddie (the dynamite John Mitsakis) exhibit the fatherly love that belies his sexual feelings for his live-in 18-year-old niece Catherine (played with terrific daddy’s girl innocence by Helen Rios). Eddie’s wife, Beatrice (Melissa J. Mayo, unable to sink her teeth satisfyingly into the role), watches with a mix of affection for her niece and wounded jealousy over the hold she knows Catherine has on her husband.
For a while we think McWhirter has it right. The Brooklyn accents are better than good. The chemistry between Catherine and Eddie shines, hers in a childlike adulation for her adoring uncle, his in an amiable possessiveness with layers of hidden lust. She touches him with thoughtless innocence; he runs his hand subtly on her waist where it shouldn’t be. The dinner table conversation between all three around whether Catherine should leave her stenography school to take on a paying job has wonderful levels of nuance, tension and distrust. But as the twist in Miller’s script comes, so does McWhirter’s complete loss of command of the material and his cast.
From the minute brothers Marco (Allen Dorris) and Rodolfo (Sam Denomy), Beatrice’s two illegal Italian immigrant relatives, are smuggled into their home with Eddie’s blessing, the production goes from tautly uncomfortable but thrilling theater to a sloppy and cringe-worthy telling of this classic. The main culprit for the show’s unhinging is Denomy’s portrayal of Rodolpho, the platinum blond, possibly gay brother who nonetheless wins Catherine’s heart, thereby threatening Eddie with her loss for good.
Where to start? Immediately noticeable is Denomy’s attempt at an Italian accent that verges on comical due to its complete and utter un-Italian-ness. Then there’s the absurdly overabundant shoulder shrugging and wavy-hand gestures that are offered up as clichéd proof of ethnicity. Most problematic, however, is Denomy’s limp presence onstage, making it nearly impossible to buy Catherine’s love for Rodolfo and providing a pathetically neutered target for Eddie’s hatred. Eddie may say Rodolfo “ain’t right” in spiteful, homophobic fashion that he may or may not believe in his jealous anger, but we have a hard time buying that such a pathetic chump could rile anyone’s anger up. All of this serves to completely snuff out the raging conflict for the rest of the show.
Instead of fighting this deflation, McWhirter seems to lean into it for the second act. Despite Mitsakis’s best efforts to play Eddie here as a man clinging to vanishing straws, his visits to Alfieri, begging him to find a law that will end his troubles, don’t deliver the desperation we expect of a man tragically struggling with a secret. While Rios as Catherine amiably tries to conjure internal conflict in the latter parts of the play, her hand-wringing decision to defy her uncle’s wishes dies on the vine of so what. Punches are thrown that pack nothing more than good technical execution. The betrayal that exposes Eddie for who he truly is leaves no one believably broken. The final foreshadowed tragedy we’ve all been waiting for fizzes out like a damp match. Watching it all unfold, we are resigned to simply go along with the motions of a disappointingly derailed production.
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The beauty of Miller’s plays comes both from the watching and from the extrapolating. Issues that are central to his writing still resonate with remarkable profundity in our present lives. In addition to the entertaining modernization of the Greek tragedy, A View From the Bridge gives us juicy moral quandaries addressing immigration fears, homophobia, incest, a woman’s right to her destiny and the struggle between a man’s individual desires and the good of the community. But was anyone actually chewing on these issues after such an ultimately lackluster performance?
“Most of the time we settle for half, and I like it better.” These are the closing words our chorus Alfieri speaks to us. He’s referring to man’s ability to rein in his wants and desires in order to avoid Eddie’s fate. They are words that could just as easily have been passing judgment on this production. Had we only seen half of this show, I think we might have liked it better as well.
A View From the Bridge continues through November 21 at Theatre Southwest, 8944A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets at theatresouthwest.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 713-661-9505. $16-$18.