Playbill On Opening Night: Two Props, No Intermission and One Great Tragedy in A View From the Bridge

News   Playbill On Opening Night: Two Props, No Intermission and One Great Tragedy in A View From the Bridge Just five years after its most recent revival, Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge returned to Broadway in a radically re-conceived production. Learn how no intermission, a chair and a cigar changed this classic work into an entirely new experience.
Mark Strong and company in <i>A View From the Bridge</i>
Mark Strong and company in A View From the Bridge Jan Versweyveld

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Considering the number of acting awards already accumulated by the Broadway revivals of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge — and this is subject to change as soon as June — it's amazing that new nooks and crannies in the characters have been found and mined by an imported British troupe speaking impeccable Brooklynese.

Six of the eight-member cast installed Nov. 12 at the Lyceum are making their Broadway debuts in this spare, spartan, stripped-down rendition of the play, which premiered in 1955 as a one-act and has now returned to that form 60 years later.

Granted it does come in five minutes short of two hours, but it's unrelentingly taut and holding, and the text of Miller's two-act revision appears to be intact. By cutting the intermission and compressing two characters into one, Belgium director Ivo van Hove masterminded this miraculous reduction/restoration with great care and ease. "I used Miller's one-act play in a conceptual way because the notion of Greek tragedy is very much alive there," he noted at the after-party at the sprawling, elegant Guastavino's, which was splashed, not at all inappropriately, with blood-red lighting. "The emotional and psychological layers are much more refined in his two-act play, and the women are developed more. Essentially, what I did was bring what Arthur Miller wanted to do with the one-act play together with what he finally wrote."

The speed and tenseness with which the play moves toward inevitable tragedy, he believed, was "because we removed all the naturalism and the realism and just focused on the text itself. I believe, with an Arthur Miller play, everything is in the text. You don't need the whole situation around it because the situation is in the text. Miller mentioned a lot of props, but we ended up with two — a cigar and a chair."

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New York is very much a playground for van Hove this season. In September, he directed Juliette Binoche in Antigone at BAM, and 25 days after opening A View From the Bridge, he will launch Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop. Come spring, he will bring another Miller play — his second ever — The Crucible to Broadway.

"I never did an Arthur Miller before I did A View From the Bridge," he confessed. "I have to admit I had a little bit of a preconception about his work, which turned out to be totally wrong. He is a moralistic writer in a way that he writes about moral issues, but he's not moralistic in a way that he says, 'This is good and this is evil.' A View From the Bridge and The Crucible are plays with very ambivalent characters. It's not so clear who is good and who is evil by the end of the evening. For somebody who has done a terrible deed, you still feel empathy for Eddie because you identify. He's a human being. We are all good, and we are all evil. We are not only one thing."

The tragedy at the core of A View From the Bridge lies in its thick-and-wrong head of "Uncle Eddie" Carbone, a Red Hook longshoreman obsessively protective of his niece, Catherine, and blind to incest brewing. Mark Strong, who won the Olivier over England's future king, Tim Pigott Smith's King Charles III, peels Eddie like an onion.

Strong goes through great angst eight times a week for a simple reason: For starters: "I know the writing's wonderful, and I know the cast is amazing. I know the conception of the piece really appeals to the audience. I've had people say to me it's the clearest version they've ever seen, by eliminating all the excess baggage of laying the table, having a meal, bringing coffee on and off, all of this, which gives you a kind of reality to some productions. By eliminating all of that, you're just left with the words, the characters and the story. The simplicity of that is what people relate to."

Because A View From the Bridge has become such a familiar sight on the theatrical scene, Strong thought, it almost requires creative thinking and refreshing. "Ivo's mission is to rescue some plays from the weight of their tradition. He just shifts the prism of the play. The light bounces on the side differently so you it in a different way. If people feel they know it, it's wonderful to be able to regenerate it for them.

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in <i>A View from the Bridge</i>
Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View from the Bridge Photo by Jan Versweyveld

"The thing that frequently gets forgotten here is that it's an ensemble play. People think that it's Eddie's play, but it's not, really. Miller was such a great writer that he has really given the breath of life to every single character in that play."

Strong, who is as Italian as Carbone (real name: Marco Giuseppe Salussola), has been inching his way toward stardom since 1989 in films, stealing the last "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" from some illustrious co-stars. As the Olivier winner in the house and the key focus of the story, he still prefers to share the wealth with his fellow players. According to van Hove, "Mark was always very much aware when the scene was about somebody else and not about him. He would wait."

Phoebe Fox, who plays the object of his unknowing affection, Catherine, seconded that. "He would be within his rights to make this his star turn and to make everyone sort of act around him," she said, "but Mark's not like that at all. He's a real company member, and he's always there giving you everything you need every single night."

For her age group, Fox feels especially blessed to be playing Catherine. "It's a gift of a part for someone whose passing tends to be quite young — at least onstage. Ingénue parts can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. Normally, as an ingénue, you turn up and cry and have to be very girly and innocent, but Catherine is so complicated. She goes on such a journey. It's just a joy to play her, and there are things that I am still trying to find out about the way her mind works. She is keeping me interested."

Mark Strong and cast in <i>View from the Bridge</i>
Mark Strong and cast in View from the Bridge Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Nicola Walker, as the forgotten and much put-upon wife Beatrice, plays her scenes with Strong with such naturalness her lines seems to meld into his. "I try not to think about it too much, but, a few times over the course of doing the run in London and here, I noticed that Beatrice, either verbally or physically, mirroring Eddie or completing a thought. That's what a husband and wife do. That's what I do at home.

"The exacting side of Ivo is he's psychologically understanding of human nature. He's astonishing. He gets people — men and women, why they do stuff. He doesn't judge them so much. He just sees them very clearly. Artistically, he's not frightened of being completely different, and he never will be. That's him. That is him. That is the way he is, and he's not frightened to do it in the absolutely purest way."

New to the production if not to Broadway (he is an ex-History Boy) is Russell Tovey, who plays Catherine's boyfriend (and, tragically, Eddie's rival), Rodolfo, and he went blonde for the occasion. "Blonds have more fun — but not in this play," he quipped. "The hair color was a given — it's in the script — so I didn't have to be talked into it. The point of being an actor is to disguise yourself and take on other characters."

Over the weekend, after the Sunday matinee, he is going to get a whole other character onto his film resume, reprising his role on the "Looking" TV series for the movie version now before the cameras. "They've crammed all my stuff into one day."

Finally, it's nice to pick up a Playbill and think, "Ah, a Scott Rudin production!" As he did with his Skylight revival, the producer arranged a Playbill cover and title page reminiscent of those in the '60s. It seems to have become his new signature. "I want it to look like the Playbills that I grew up with that I always loved," Rudin explained.

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