Death of a Stevedore

A small, unhappy family: Anthony LaPaglia, Brittany Murphy, and Allison Janney.Photo: Joan Marcus

The more tragic or poetic Arthur Miller strives to be, the worse he gets. In A View From the Bridge, the demon of pomposity has Miller well in its clutches: Both the poetic and the tragic vein are open and bleeding all over the place. The longshoreman Eddie Carbone is unaware that he is carnally in love with his niece, Catherine (Miller shies away from making her the daughter, though there are hints in that direction), and his craving and self-deludedness are his undoing. A real tragic hero achieves final awareness, even redemption, in his downfall; Eddie is as dumb in death as in life.

Then there is the lawyer Alfieri (named after Italy’s premier tragic playwright!), surveying the Brooklyn shipyards and environs from his Olympian bridge, and acting as Greek chorus. Twice he tells us that Eddie’s “eyes were like tunnels,” and the guy certainly has tunnel vision; after Eddie’s death, Alfieri eulogizes him: “Something perversely pure calls to me from his memory – not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known,” and so, unsyntactically, on. But if that is a virtue, it is one Eddie shares with that other tragic hero, Adolf Hitler.

The play makes its points as subtly as nails being hammered into a coffin lid. Though we can feel something for the other characters, we find it hard to accept Eddie’s blind stupidity as an appropriate tragic flaw. This makes the performance of the Australian-born Anthony LaPaglia all the more miraculous. A total actor who can play any kind of role to the hilt without overstepping the boundaries of the permissible, he has done wonders in all media without yet getting the roles he deserves. Here LaPaglia’s acting manages to do more for Eddie’s humanity than the writing does: It is dedicated to showing without the least showing off.

Keeping right up with LaPaglia is Allison Janney, as Eddie’s long-suffering (the cliché must not be avoided) wife. In a much more passive role, Miss Janney nevertheless radiates understanding and empathy. And when she is allowed to let go, her pleading is without plaintiveness, her passion brims over into compassion. Her dignity remains magnificently intact.

David Gallo’s inventively panoramic scenery and Kenneth Posner’s searing lighting also rate praise, but this is where the good stuff ends. Michael Mayer, the director, fresh from making Triumph of Love even worse than it is, makes a shambles here. Two main roles are monumentally miscast. Alfieri has to be the sturdy, morally and physically unswerving embodiment of reason, a man both above and of the people, the humble Italo-Americans of his background. To cast in this role the spindly Stephen Spinella – a specialist in effetely homosexual roles in Kushner and McNally plays – borders on dementia. Effeminate of aspect, voice, and demeanor, he vainly affects a George Raft hairdo and would-be virile gestures that go soft before they are half over. He is the last person the homophobic Eddie Carbone would pour out his heart to and seek advice from.

No less absurd is the casting of Brittany Murphy as Catherine, which leaves her as a cast-off on a sea of incomprehension. An actress who made her dubious mark in the movie Clueless, Miss Murphy turns a sweet, complaisant blossom of the Eisenhower era into an affected, hyperactive San Fernando nerve-grater. With her anachronistically fidgety mannerisms and Valley-girl speech, not to mention general gracelessness, she makes Eddie’s longings for her less incestuous than inane.

Adam Trese is a cipher as the quietly forceful Marco, and Gabriel Olds’s Rodolpho (Miller’s misspelling of Rodolfo) could do with a little less sexual ambiguity. In Mayer’s staging, even the electrifying scene where Eddie viciously kisses him becomes overfussy and ineffectual.

In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller comments on the original production of A View: “I had accepted the chestnut that good actors, regardless of type, can surmount anything. They can’t.” Since he sat in on rehearsals of this revival without interfering, Miller must think that lesser actors, cast against type, can surmount anything.

Death of a Stevedore