It was a hard life on the Brooklyn dockyards in the 1950s, when union boss Joseph Ryan ran a closed Mafia shop in what Arthur Miller called "the sinister, waterfront world of unions, assassinations, beatings, bodies thrown into the lovely bay at night." Miller's great 1955 play A View From the Bridge, opening this month at the Cort Theatre, is the human face of the mostly Italian immigrants whose lives depended on not running afoul of the bosses and not speaking out at the terrible injustices of the waterfront.
Dark, cold, unforgiving, Miller experienced it firsthand: "In Red Hook, Brooklyn, at 4:30 on winter mornings, I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street, facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day."
In those huddles, wordless with hope, the characters of A View From the Bridge gather to try to make a new life in a new country, to make good far from their sunny Italian countryside. In the harsh gray light of a New York tenement, they fall in love — often with the wrong girl — raise families, put food on the table, become Americans. They all dream of escape and some manage it, their dreams translating into education or talents they can exploit or powerful friends who might help. But most settle for just making a living, because even that is hard enough.
The original title was An Italian Tragedy and the form was, rather self-consciously, based on Greek tragedy, especially in its subplot of incest and family catastrophe, but the play itself is, unashamedly, completely American, delving into the universal themes of love, justice and hope that inform all of Arthur Miller's work. A View From the Bridge is epic, almost operatic in its reach beyond the concerns of the Italian-American family at its center. The love affair between the adoptive daughter of the family and the newly arrived immigrant, the misunderstandings between husband and wife, and the warmth of a father's love are all set against the uneasy politics of the Brooklyn waterfront.
The task of weaving together the many strands that have to come together in a play of this complexity has been left in the experienced hands of Tony Award–winning director Gregory Mosher (no stranger to directing opera).
Scarlett Johansson, new to Broadway, plays niece Catherine, on whose 17-year-old shoulders rests the family's future. "I learn something new about Catherine as well as myself as an actor, everyday," she says. "She is a much more complex character than I originally read her to be — a revelation I believe Miller intended for the actress playing her [to] discover."
In the pivotal role of the paterfamilias, Eddie Carbone, we have Liev Schreiber, with all the right qualities of depth and sensitivity. Jessica Hecht as Beatrice, his wife, and Santino Fontana as Rodolpho, the upstart lover who sets the amorous cat among the pigeons, round out the cast.
The joy of Arthur Miller's work is that, in common with every great piece of art, every time you see it, no matter how well you think you know it, you discover something you've never seen before. So it is with great theatre. Amid the cold, gray dark of a Brooklyn waterfront, A View From the Bridge will remind you what the theatre is about. It's about life.