There can be no doubt that Anthony LaPaglia is giving a wonderful performance in the new production of A View From the Bridge at the Roundabout Theater. His Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman who is among Arthur Miller’s most affecting tragic heroes, is a magnificent achievement.
He will receive the lion’s share of the plaudits and our thanks, which is only right. But there’s another supreme performance in this deeply moving 1950’s social drama that unfolds with the unyielding inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Allison Janney as Eddie’s wife, Beatrice, has the smaller role, but she, too, gives a tremendous performance. I last saw her having a ball as a Noel Coward sophisticate in last season’s wayward Present Laughter . It makes her brilliant working-class heroine even more of a revelation.
As with the utter authenticity-call it truth-of Mr. LaPaglia’s longshoreman, Ms. Janney’s Beatrice is rooted powerfully in the same awesome reality. From the first moment that each of them appears, we think: “I know these people.” It isn’t just that Mr. LaPaglia has the look, the girth and feel of a tough longshoreman living a backbreaking life. As the famous line from the play puts it plainly: “He was as good a man as he had to be in a life that was hard and even.” Ms. Janney suggests that “hard and even” life, too, with her tired, careworn appearance that is aging her before her time.
The look of them both is strikingly authentic, as I say. But my admiration has more to do with the peculiar feeling that they couldn’t be anyone else. In other words, they appear not to be acting at all. I know of no higher compliment! Mr. LaPaglia’s Eddie and Ms. Janney’s Beatrice are the summit of stage naturalism. When they enter, they don’t exactly enter on stage. Rather, they bring on entire lives with them-lives of tragic inevitability.
Arthur Miller’s tragic heroes are ordinary men-Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman , the self-deceiving businessman Joe Keller in All My Sons , Eddie in A View From the Bridge , whose obsessive love for his 17-year-old niece Catherine leads to a terrible act of betrayal and destruction. He’s a simple man. “I only ask you one thing,” he advises Catherine. “Don’t trust nobody. You got a good aunt, but she’s got too big a heart; you learned bad from her. Believe me.”
Beatrice replies: “Be the way you are, Katie, don’t listen to him.”
But Eddie turns resentful: “You lived in a house all your life, what do you know about it? You never worked in your life.”
Mr. Miller’s 1950’s women (wife-mothers, mostly) invariably don’t go out to work. Their bone-tiring work is home and family and survival-or holding things together and never succeeding. Arthur Miller’s heroes are the Common Man. “Tragic heroes, we used to be told, have to fall from a great height,” the British critic Michael Billington wrote perceptively about the play. “But it’s the intensity of the despair rather than the depth of the descent that makes for true drama.”
The equal partners in despair are the women. There ought to be a thesis written about Mr. Miller’s women, assuming there isn’t one already. They ground his dramas in their enormous compassion. (“Attention must be paid!”) Theirs is a true love. They are not bamboozled. They are knowing. They know the center cannot hold. They protect and defend, and they are invariably beaten. But they truly love. Ms. Janney’s performance moves us all the more because, by everyday standards, her Beatrice shouldn’t stand by Eddie, who’s destroyed everything, including himself.
“Eddie, listen to me,” she pleads in the drama’s last moments. “Who could give you your name? Listen to me, I love you, I’m talkin’ to you, I love you.…”
She stands by him in spite of the truth she’s known all along: He’s in love with their adoring teenage niece and is powerless to do anything about it, powerless even to comprehend it.
Mr. LaPaglia’s tender and haunted Eddie is a walking time bomb. If you know the play, you might still find yourself shocked-as I was-when, in the violent climactic scene, he kisses Catherine on the mouth and then humiliates her young, beautiful lover Rodolpho by kissing him. The scene still shocks us precisely because the catastrophe is inevitable. And because, in our hearts, we don’t want it to happen. We’re as helpless as Eddie Carbone is to stop the course of tragic events.
A View From the Bridge is a story of unstoppable passion, and it’s also a morality tale of natural justice and the judgment of a community. The Italian lawyer, Alfieri, functions as a Greek chorus and is sometimes said to be a problem with the play. Unfortunately, the usually fine Stephen Spinella is ill-suited for the role. Alfieri, the moral conscience and commentator, might be a Red Hook poet-longshoreman himself. “This is the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge,” he tells us. “This is the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world.”
Alfieri could be the longshoreman who told Arthur Miller the true story of an Eddie Carbone on whom the drama is based. Mr. Miller’s model for him may well be a Greek chorus. The dramatist consciously wished to take American social drama into the realm of Greek tragedy. But the function of Alfieri actually takes us to the root and heart of theater, and should work every time. He’s a storyteller! He sets the tone for us at the outset: “Justice is very important here. But this is Red Hook, not Sicily … And now we are quite civilized, quite American. Now we settle for half, and I like it better.…”
The tragic destiny of Eddie is that he can’t settle for half. In Alfieri’s memorable phrase, “He allowed himself to be wholly known.” He did wrong, his death was useless. Yet we still mourn this man who was “not purely good, but himself purely.”
Mr. LaPaglia and Ms. Janney are so fine that the rest of the ensemble seems more solid than inspired, though Brittany Murphy does well in her Broadway debut as Catherine. I’ve never seen a production of A View From the Bridge in which the Italian immigrants, Rodolpho and Marco, speak plain English (rather than stagy Anglo-Italian), and I wish someone would risk it. True, they’re new immigrants-but what of that? Theoretically, they wouldn’t be able to speak any English.
I thought the crowd scenes in Michael Mayer’s production fussy-too busy, as if everyone at first might break into song-until the chilling final scenes. Then, all those extras become a jury surrounding the circular stage of David Gallo’s bitumen-black set, which is an amphitheater where an anonymous, ordinary man is fatefully given a public destiny.