IT'S thrilling to watch two long-estranged old friends come to one
another's rescue in their hour of darkest need. And, in a figurative sense,
that's just what is happening this moment at the Ambassador Theater. The two
old friends I refer to are Arthur Miller and Broadway. Mr. Miller hasn't had
a success in a Broadway house for well over a decade. Broadway is in the
midst of its leanest season in years. But thanks to the stunning revival of
''A View From the Bridge'' that opened last night, Mr. Miller has found a
haven on Broadway again, and Broadway has found a much-needed evening of
electric American drama. I hope no one wakes us up and tells us that this is
all a dream.
Who would have predicted this fortunate turn of events? Not this theatergoer,
who has some strong reservations about Mr. Miller's play, which first
appeared on Broadway as a one-acter in 1955 and is seen here in the
full-length, now standard version that Peter Brook first staged in London in
1956 and that Ulu Grosbard mounted Off Broadway in 1966. Those reservations
aren't eliminated by this production, which originated last season at New
Haven's Long Wharf Theater, but they are certainly minimized by the shrewd
and forceful direction of Arvin Brown and by the tumultuous star performance
of Tony Lo Bianco. Mr. Lo Bianco is such a dynamic and enveloping force that
the audience has no chance to even think of questioning the play until well
after it's over.
The star plays Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman with a secret,
unrecognized passion ''that had moved into his body like a stranger.'' That
passion is an incestuous, possessive love for the 17-year-old orphan niece,
Catherine (Saundra Santiago), whom he and his wife Beatrice (Rose Gregorio)
have raised like a daughter. ''A View From the Bridge'' is about the
destruction the jealous Eddie wreaks on himself and his family once
Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho (James Hayden), an Italian cousin of
Beatrice's who is living at the Carbone house as an illegal immigrant.
Eddie's reckless path of vengeance leads inexorably to catastrophic violence,
but not before he has committed the cardinal sin against his close-knit
community - informing to the immigration police.
Mr. Brown stages ''A View From the Bridge'' for what it most successfully is:
not a McCarthy-era parable or a universal morality play, but a vivid,
crackling, idiomatic psychosexual horror tale. Though the evening eventually
builds to an operatic crescendo, the director takes the rise slowly,
reinforcing the playwright's gift for realism so that we'll be drawn fully
into the sordid chain of events. Mr. Miller's ear for his characters'
working-class vernacular is extremely well served, the comic rhythms
included. The strategically placed theatrical eruptions come to a boil
suddenly in otherwise small-scale, earthy domestic scenes.
This is a play that, in its own words, offers ''no mystery to unravel,'' but
the air is charged with tension in this production. When Eddie kisses
Rodolpho on the mouth in the desperate attempt to brand him as a homosexual
before his niece, the moment still catches us unawares and shocks. The
spellbinding mood is enhanced by the designers, who give the waterfront a
foreboding, film noir aura. Hugh Landwehr frames the shabby Red Hook living
room and the street outside against the intimidating span of a bridge and a
long dark staircase that surely must lead to doom. Ronald Wallace's lighting
suggests that every playing area, even the corner phone booth from which
Eddie makes a fateful call, is illuminated by a single hanging lightbulb.
Mr. Brown's staging is also to be applauded for what it deemphasizes in the
text. Along with the contrived plot setups, notably a sudden bail
negotiation in Act II, the trickiest aspect of this play is Alfieri, the
lawyer who serves as a Greek-chorus narrator. Alfieri speaks in the rhetoric
of tragedy and constantly makes portentous announcements about Eddie's ''destiny''
running ''its bloody course.'' But as many have noted, Eddie does not have
the grandeur of a tragic hero - he's merely a psychotic about to be devoured
by his long-repressed sickness. To downplay the exalted claims that Mr.
Miller makes for his protagonist through Alfieri, Mr. Brown has enlisted
that fine actor Robert Prosky to play the lawyer in the most unassuming,
intelligently humorous manner imaginable. The strategy considerably lightens
the play's burden of pretentiousness.
Mr. Prosky's performance typifies the supporting cast's high caliber. Miss
Santiago makes a very impressive Broadway debut as Catherine. She isn't a
Lolita or a fool but a genuine innocent who just doesn't recognize until too
late why her uncle so domineeringly demands her affection and obedience.
Once that recognition comes, the actress blossoms from a girl into a woman,
and, by the end, into a woman old before her time. As her suitor, Mr. Hayden
is also an affecting overgrown child, pathetically clinging to his
immigrant's politeness in the face of Eddie's repeated taunts - until,
finally, he, too, must reach adulthood through rage. Alan Feinstein is
charismatic in his delineation of the more brutal expressions of anger that
define Rodolpho's brother, Marco.
As the wife Beatrice, the play's smartest and most brutalized character,
Rose Gregorio is chilling. When she lashes out bitterly at Eddie about her
own unhappiness, he's too absorbed in his own obsession even to look at her.
Forced to see that both she and her husband are now forever isolated in
their own separate miseries, Miss Gregorio yanks her eyes and mouth into
slashes of pain that are horrifying to behold. And she tops this later on,
when she conveys Beatrice's dawning realization of Eddie's ultimate betrayal
by locking herself into her chair, hands on knees, as if the weight of her
knowledge is crushing her to death.
It says a lot about Mr. Lo Bianco's performance that, powerful as it is, it
does not obliterate the others. True to the production, his Eddie is in
human scale. The character doesn't know what's eating him - or at least he's
the last to know - and the actor uses subtle means to fill in gradually the
guilt and self-revulsion that only slowly come to the surface.
At first a jocular if testy neighborhood Joe, Mr. Lo Bianco then seems to
drift apart from himself - as if he were outside looking in, trying to
decipher with everyone else the unarticulated warped logic that leads him to
challenge Catherine's every little effort to venture from the nest. ''His
eyes were like tunnels,'' says Alfieri, and so Mr. Lo Bianco's are. Volatile
one moment, totally withdrawn the next, the actor travels within a cloud of
impenetrable turbulence that visibly buffets all around him.
But even early on, there's a hint of the larger explosion to come: we see an
undefinable, split-second twist of perverse malevolence to the casual hand
gesture that Eddie uses to dismiss Catherine's plea to wear high-heeled
shoes. Once Eddie finally does recognize that what he hungers for in life is
not the ''respect'' he talks about but his niece, the shattering guilt
transforms him into a sweaty, deranged, hissing animal - a rat. Mr. Lo
Bianco is a slight, anonymous-looking man, but he looms up to make the
Maybe we can't be deeply moved by this cruel man's plight, but we are
nonetheless trapped totally inside it. What is deeply moving about the
evening is the spectacle of seeing our theater lovingly make the absolute
most of its still usable and valuable past. Immigrant Informer A VIEW FROM
THE BRIDGE, by Arthur Miller; directed by Arvin Brown; setting by Hugh
Landwehr; costumes by Bill Walker; lighting by Ronald Wallace; fights staged
by B.H. Barry; associate producer, Barbara Livitz; production stage manager,
James Harker. The Long Wharf Theater production presented by Zev Bufman and
Sidney Shlenker. At the Ambassador Theater, 215 West 49th Street.