Monday, February 01, 2010

Intermission Talk

January 30, 2010

Intermission Talk

by Tony Vellela

Reviewing 'Race,'

'A View from the Bridge,'

& 'A Little Night Music,'

The well-known act of betrayal committed by Eddie Carbone, the Italian longshoreman in Arthur Miller's often underrated 1955 drama 'A View from the Bridge,' involves turning in an immigrant who has entered the country illegally - a simple, clear act. What leads up to this shattering development begins with his wife Beatrice's hospitality for her two cousins who have stowed away on a freighter. They have taken up residence in the Red Hook, Brooklyn apartment with her, Eddie, and their seventeen-year-old niece Catherine, whom they have raised since she was a baby after her parents died. Crowded house.

Family trumps risk when lives are at stake, and the stowaways, called 'submarines' by the dock workers, have made this daring move because there is no work at all in their small village. Marco, the older brother, has a wife and children, while his younger brother Rodolfo, is single and a bit carefree. Their motives are all too familiar in an ethnic neighborhood that closes ranks when members of the tribe need help. There is an assumed, unspoken trust that insures discretion, and even deception, a trust that will keep the illegal asylees out of harm's way until they can become just two more invisible workers.

But the opposite of trust, it can be argued, is betrayal. And the examples of betrayal, large and small, public and private, old and new, pepper the tale that Miller has fashioned from a real event he heard about in the early '50s, when he was planning to write a screenplay about the conditions of longshoremen, [titled 'The Hook']. It was never completed, but elements show up in 'On the Waterfront.' Betrayal, to Miller, always registers as one of mankind's greatest sins.

In this production at the Cort Theatre, spot-on acting elevates Miller's basically simple story into one of tragic proportions, in large part because its smallness is honored. All six principals - the aforementioned plus the lawyer Alfieri who also serves as a narrator a few times - come naturally to life through the careful performances of Liev Schreiber [Eddie], Jessica Hecht [Beatrice], Scarlett Johansson [Catherine], Corey Stoll [Marco], Morgan Spector [Rodolfo] and Michael Christofer [Alfieri] - a formidable ensemble, under the quiet directorial hand of Gregory Mosher.

Collectively, they show rather than just tell, the many acts of betrayal as they gain momentum and then spiral out of control. At the rotten core is Eddie's brooding, repressed lust for his niece, which surfaces as jealousy when Catherine and Rodolfo begin a romance. Eddie's obsessive, controlling attention to Catherine's 'welfare' represents the major violation of trust, the one that he joined Beatrice in pledging when they took in the baby to raise as their own.

Jessica Hecht's Beatrice keeps in check as long as she can, the wife's frustration at the decline of their sex life, and the rise of Eddie's no longer subtle attraction to Catherine, a double betrayal. Rodolfo's reckless need to go out nights, with Catherine, betrays the necessity for him and his brother to keep undercover until it is safe for them to leave the Carbones, risking the loss of the money they are making. Rodolfo buys clothes and records, but Marco sends his money back to Italy, to see that his family has food to eat.

Johansson's Catherine is not blameless. She proclaims that she knows more about the world than Eddie or Beatrice realize, which makes her culpable in keeping up her little- girl behavior toward Eddie, while at the same time walking around the apartment in her slip, or talking with him while he shaves in the bathroom in his underwear. The actress, who exerts real restraint in hiding the fact that she is about a decade too old for this part, makes a decent Broadway debut, but is too often overshadowed by the powerhouse duo playing her surrogate parents. When Schreiber careers uncontrollably into the dark abyss that will define his memory, the true impact of his accumulation of betrayals comes through - the actor always maintains the character's sense of his disbelief in the inevitability of his fate.

Carbone is called out by Marco, on the street, who accuses him of turning in his brother, and as a result, robbing Marco of his income to feed his family. Carbone refuses to take the blame, and demands that Marco renounce his accusation. This betrayal extends beyond Carbone's domain. It is a betrayal of the entire community, of the 'extended family' that protects each other against the outsiders, whoever they are, however legitimate their authority. Carbone has brought disgrace, shame to this Brooklyn-based Italian 'village.' "I want my name," Carbone shouts. But he has lost it, forfeited it. Those who know the Miller canon will recall another accused man who makes the same plea - 'The Crucible's' John Proctor, who shouts "Leave me my name."

No one will accuse Stephen Sondheim of betraying his destiny, and his 'A Little Night Music' attests to his dedication to making musical theatre a place of wonder and fulfillment. Would that those who produced the current revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre had the same commitment.

Despite the megawatt star power of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, this luxuriant musical masterpiece comes in somewhat less that dazzling. And the culprit is the current trend of presenting epic theatre creations in minimalist fashion [e.g. the recent, now-shuttered production of 'Ragtime']. A basically bare stage, supplemented by a few chairs and screens from time to time, do not an epic make. Add to that the unfortunate choices made by costume designer David Farley [who also did the set design] to clad most of the participants in shades of grey, and you get the look of a cash-strapped summer theatre struggling to make its fare look more upscale that it is.

Nothing about Ms. Lansbury is low-energy. At eighty-something, her zeal still engulfs the stage. She embodies what 'Streetcar's' Blanche wishes for when she says 'I don't want realism. I want magic.' Even playing Madame Armfeld, a crusty end-of-life courtesan confined to a wheelchair, she radiates her life force like a Chinese lantern, lit from within. As her actress daughter Desiree, who now struggles with that period in a seductress's life when she may be losing her allure, Zeta-Jones hardly looks like a female with that predicament. [remember when Michelle Pfeiffer was cast as the weary, worn-out plain waitress in 'Frankie and Johnny?']. She's got enough vocal ability and on-stage mobility to carry off the demanding lead role, but one never buys into her as ready for her midlife crisis. She would benefit from one of Barbara Cook's vocal classes, where she counsels students on how to use lyrics to tell a story, and to ar-tic-u-late, so the lyricist's craft can be fully appreciated. The real stand-out in the cast, Alexander Hanson, brings to life Desiree's former and once-again present lover Fredrik. He is that rare Broadway commodity, a mature leading man who can sing, move, act and elicit swoons. He's a British import.

Yes, the now-iconic numbers are here, with Lansbury recounting with wry wit her 'Liaisons,' and Zeta-Jones realizing it's time for her to 'Send in the Clowns.' This is a score that caresses you. However, this is a production that only pinches your cheek.

And talk about cheek. Last, and least, there is David Mamet's 'Race.' This shameless piece of claptrap that makes 'Oleanna' look like 'Inherit the Wind,' purports to examine honestly the case of a white, middle-aged executive accused of raping a black female employee - details truly irrelevant. Mamet is more transparent than usual in showing his contempt for audiences - the lawyers are white James Spader, called here Jack LAWSON, and black David Alan Grier, here called Henry BROWN. Their new legal 'apprentice,' a black female law student from Lawson's class called Susan, [Kerry Washington's unmemorable Broadway debut], has no last name. Misogyny, anyone?

Holes in the logic of the story make you wonder how this law firm got to be so successful. First, a critical piece of evidence is a postcard, and later, a letter. Their daily calendar is devoid of other clients. And then there's the business of ... oh, who cares? My verdict is that very soon they will be posting a 'final weeks' notice. Case dismissed.

On Book . . .

Stop me if you know this, but for anyone who likes, admires or reveres the brilliance of Arthur Miller, his imposing autobiography 'Timebends' presents the grand sweep of a grand life, and the more-than-grand outpouring of one of America's true creative geniuses. The other creative genius aforementioned, Stephen Sondheim, has the invention of a dozen of his masterworks chronicled in Craig Zadan's captivating 'Sondheim & Co.' From 'Anyone Can Whistle' and 'A Little Night Music' to 'Sweeney Todd' and 'West Side Story,' and the eight others in between, this 'authorized, behind-the scenes' journal will provide good Company.

Sondheim occupies but one chapter in 'Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre - The Composers and Lyricists.' Herbert Keyser hits all the right notes, from Arlen to Willson, from Berlin to Youmans. This hefty tome is something to sing about. And if the subject of great dramatic story-telling is on your mind after seeing 'A View From The Bridge,' Eric Bentley's 'The Life of the Drama' will provide insight into how all the parts should be constructed to create that well-built play. Bentley gets to the root of enduring, universal playwriting, Here are the basics, and there is no substitute for them.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series 'Character Studies,' about theatre. He has been covering theatre and the performing arts as a critic, journalist and interviewer for four decades, in dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Saturday Review and Rolling Stone. He is also an award-winning playwright, and teaches at HB Studio in New York.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly my friends and I saw RACE and found it both entertaining and discussion worthy after the performance. I will admit that it is not Mamet's best work, but it still provides interesting dialogue and a terrific performance by James Spader. David Alan Grier was also very good in his role. Thankfully each and every person can be there own critic. If we had relied on your professional opinion we might have missed RACE which we found entertaining even though you did not! We would have hated to have missed seeing James Spader's performance on the live stage, we all came away from the theatre talking about what a natural stage actor he is.

10:46 PM  

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