Review: A View From the Bridge

Fabulous Retro Playbill

This may be a little briefer than usual. I’m going for a no-frills review of a no-frills show. Director Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, direct from London’s Young Vic, strips the play down to its essentials: actors walk around barefoot, in costumes that don’t look particularly period-specific, without props, without furniture, in a simple white box of a set. You’re left with a pure, searing drama. And boy, is it powerful.

It’s been on Broadway numerous times but the plot, set in 1950s Brooklyn, was new to me. It’s a family drama: Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) adores his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). So much that it’s disturbing, actually. When two illegal immigrant cousins come to stay at his place, Catherine falls for one of them. This is a problem: for Eddie, for Eddie’s relationship with Catherine, for Eddie’s relationship with his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker), even for Eddie’s relationship with the neighborhood.

It’s an outstanding piece of writing from Miller, that’s for sure. It was written as a two-act drama, but this production is an intermissionless piece that runs just under two hours. Scenes transition nearly instantly, with one conversation turning into another in a flash. Sounds confusing but in fact it’s easy to follow. The production feels like it’s had all the fat cut out of it, and you’re left with something lean, filling, and tasty.*

Perhaps if I’d been more familiar with the piece, I’d have more to say on the smart directorial choices Van Hove has made, or the excellent cast, or the cuts to Miller’s original. As it is, I don’t have too much to say, except that it’s all terrific. In fact, my biggest problem was probably just the venue. Now, I love Broadway theaters as much as the next obsessive theater blogger, but you’ve got to imagine the production is far more powerful in an intimate setting. (As I recall, the Young Vic is a lot smaller?) They should have blackboxed the heck out of this production, as far as I’m concerned. Something about the distance of a Broadway theater kept me a little at bay. There are seats available onstage, and perhaps that’s the ideal way to experience this Bridge. But that’s annoying. Isn’t it a bad thing if only a small percentage of an audience experiences the production the way it was meant to be? If you have a decent mezzanine seat, as I did, and feel like you’re missing out, then there’s something wrong here.

Nevertheless, it’s a great show, and I’m glad I saw it. Those wonderful Brits**. Don’t you love it when they take an American classic and show us how it’s done?

My Grade: A-
Ticket Price: $34.50
Worth it: Yes
Running Time: 1 Hour, 55 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes (orchestra and stage) and No (Mezzanine)

* EWWWWW. Is that a meat reference? Gross. I can’t believe I put a meat reference into my review. Obviously I’m still a vegan. Tofu forever!

** Actually Ivo Van Hove is Dutch, but let’s not let facts get in the way of my point. The production is British, anyway.

Review: The Who and the What

2014-06-18 18.58.58Before I even start on the play, may I just say a few words on the theater? I think all of my friends should go see a show at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow. Lovely rooftop terrace, intimate theater, affordable bar, $20 tickets. Honestly folks: I’m not sure there’s a better deal.

And the play ain’t bad either. The Who and the What is a new production from Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the 2013 Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced. Like Disgraced, this show deals with culture clashes, but this time from an explicitly religious angle. Zarina (Nadine Malouf), an ambivalent Muslim woman from a devout family, writes a novel about the prophet Muhammad’s very human urges and spiritual confusion, causing a firestorm within her family. The Who and the What is really about the role of women in the Quran and Muslim society, and is the kind of play that reminds me how fortunate I am by comparison.

It’s also a softer play than Disgraced, which has a shocking violent element to it. I could more easily predict the plot twists, and despite some cutting insults and tense moments, nothing about The Who and the What feels like it cuts to the soul. I also think I’d have liked it better if it made me a little more uncomfortable in my own position, and less righteously indignant about another culture. But I don’t want to lose the thread here: this play is thought-provoking; it’s involving; it features lively characters and great use of humor. All this with a 2 hour running time (and that includes an intermission).

One more thing: Zarina’s book is supposedly an incisive and daring portrayal of Muhammad, but the excerpts, to my ears, sounded more like The Red Tent, which I recall as an occasionally steamy summer read featuring biblical characters. I’d have been more convinced about Zarina’s novel had it sounded more like The Testament of Mary, a novel and play from Colm Tóibín that really does feel subversive. Maybe I’d have been more interested in a story told from the woman’s perspective (Zarina’s novel is told from Muhammad’s point of view).  But then perhaps I’m only saying that because I’m familiar with the Bible, but not the Quran.

(Edited to add, 6/21/14)

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Ticket price: $20 on lct.org
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: Act One

wpid-cam00421.jpg“Too slow,” barked the guy directly behind me, immediately after act one of Act One. This view seems to be the consensus. A friend’s one-word review of the show was “loooooong” and other friends have told me the same. The main reason I hadn’t been particularly interested in seeing it was its three-hour running time.

But who cares if it’s long? I got a huge kick out of it: it’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s full of character, and it’s about my favorite subject, Broadway. Act One is a dramatization of Moss Hart’s popular 1959 memoir about growing up poor in the Bronx and falling in love with theater, eventually dazzling Broadway with Once in a Lifetime, his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman. When I mentioned Kaufman and Hart to my roommates this morning, they hadn’t heard of either man. I suppose this isn’t that surprising; 1930s Broadway playwrights aren’t exactly well known today. But as Frank Rich pointed out, Moss Hart was a superstar during Broadway’s golden age. As an indication of how highly people thought of him, here’s Alan Jay Lerner, who worked with him on My Fair Lady:

Moss Hart. Moss Hart, as I was to find out, had no understudies. He is and forever will be irreplaceable to more people in more ways than any man I have ever known. When he died in 1961 it was more than simply the death of one man. It seemed as if the gods had broken in and robbed us of some of our most precious humanity. … He was in every sense of the word a man of the theatre, a gentleman of the theatre, and the last of his breed. (The Street Where I Live, 1978, p. 71-72).

(Alan Jay Lerner, you are wonderfully over the top.) Clearly, people loved this guy. Anyway, this is Moss’s rags-to-riches autobiography, as adapted and directed by James Lapine. The role is performed by three actors: Matthew Schechter as a boy, Santino Fontana as a young man, and Tony Shalhoub as a fiftysomething narrator. The first act deals primarily with Hart’s childhood and early ambitions; the second act is mostly about the genesis of Once in a Lifetime. Why did I like it so much? I can think of three major reasons:

  • First, it’s wonderful to be immersed in the world of Old Broadway (you must of course pronounce it the old fashioned way, BroadWAY, instead of our BROADway). Even the size of the cast (twenty plus actors!) feels incredibly retro. I only wished it was actually taking place in the Music Box, instead of Lincoln Center‘s Vivian Beaumont. But you can’t have everything in life.
  • Second, even if the show were a real stinker, Beowulf Boritt’s set alone might be worth the ticket price. What an astounding design. It’s a massive circular structure on a turntable, becoming everything from Moss’s Bronx home, to Kaufman’s fancy townhouse, to a theater, to various offices and hotel rooms, and even more. It’s difficult to convey the scale of this thing. This is the most impressive set I’ve seen in ages. (Here are a few pictures, though I’m not sure these shots really do Boritt  justice.) It’s also set towards the back of the stage, so it never really overwhelms the action. At least not from where I was sitting on the side.
  • Third and most importantly, there’s the colorful characters. Nearly all of the best ones are given to Andrea Martin (fabulous as Moss’s dotty, theatre-obsessed aunt; a spitfire theatrical agent; and Mrs. Kaufman) and Tony Shalhoub. Oh, Tony Shalhoub, what you do for this play! Like Ms. Martin, he’s got three roles. In addition to playing the mature Moss, he also puts on a cockney accent as Moss’s dad Barnett. But really he’s best as George S. Kaufman, Moss’s mentor and great partner. The role of Kaufman shares some OCD tendencies with Mr. Shalhoub’s TV detective Monk, so I suppose he’s is in his element here. Whatever. Mr. Shalhoub’s Kaufman is hilarious and compelling and lovable and brilliant and a total weirdo.

Interestingly, Moss Hart himself is still something of an everyman at this point, just a kid that wants to make a splash on Broadway. For the vast majority of the play, the role is Mr. Fontana’s, and he’s got the hardworking, likable persona down pat. But the character isn’t incredibly dynamic. If you love this show, it will be for the recurring characters like Sam Harris (Bob Stillman), Jed Harris (Will LeBow), and any character played by Mr. Shalhoub or Ms. Martin.

It’s definitely not a perfect play. About that length: I wish James Lapine had let someone else direct, or had found a collaborator to help write the thing, or something. The parts that could use some cuts are so obvious to me. (Any of those cameos with the celebrities of the day, really. What’s the bit with Langston Hughes doing in there? Why do we need to meet Edna Ferber for 90 seconds?) Still, I’d call Act One methodical rather than plodding. There’s a lot of story to be told here, and I found the pacing fine. By the time Once in a Lifetime, which had an incredibly arduous development process, opens as a smash hit on Broadway, I felt like I’d earned the emotional payoff.

2014-05-07 19.29.41There are shows I pick apart ruthlessly, and there are shows I allow to get away with murder. Act One is probably the latter. On the way home, I wondered if Act One wasn’t my equivalent of the feel-good sports movie. If that sounds dismissive, I don’t mean for it to be. I was just so delighted with my trip to 1920s Broadway that I’d forgive it if it ran a little long, or got overly sentimental in places. Here was a chance for all of us to celebrate the magic of Broadway, and to see some fabulous sets, and to experience wonderful performances. And all we can say about it is that it’s long?