Broadway's newest hit is a 55-year-old play — the can't-lose combination of Arthur Miller and a couple of hot Hollywood stars. Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson star in A View from the Bridge, Miller's attempt to take Greek tragedy and give it an American twist.
A View from the Bridge is set in Red Hook, then a blue-collar Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood. It tells the story of a longshoreman, Eddie Carbone, and his obsession with his teenaged niece, Catherine. From the opening moments of the play, there's no question how it's going to end: A character tells the audience that Eddie Carbone is a dead man walking. And yet Schreiber says that even with this knowledge, the audience is on tenterhooks all evening — just like in a real Greek tragedy.
"I mean, you know from the outset exactly what's going to happen," he says. "The only question is how."
"How" is director Gregory Mosher's job. He says the challenge is to make every moment in this taut 97-minute drama as specific and revealing as possible.
"The actors have to act in such a compelling way that the audience is in the moment," he says. "And then, if you're really lucky, and the actors are really good, they will stop time."
And, Mosher adds, these actors really are good. He worked with Schreiber and Johansson to find a natural physicality to their relationship.
"Eddie loves Catherine — and is free to love Catherine," Mosher says. "She's his niece. He has raised her. He has every right in the world to love her, to hold her, to throw his arms around her. And we figured out early that neither of them could be self-conscious about that, and that the audience would start to go, 'Ooooh, that might be crossing a line.' "
The important thing, Mosher says: "But you see that in neither of their eyes are they crossing the line. It's pure familial love."
A Cousin, A Connection, A Catastrophe
The play's tragedy is set in motion when two illegal immigrants — Italian cousins of Eddie's wife, Beatrice — come to stay in their tiny apartment, and Catherine falls for one of them. Jessica Hecht, who plays Beatrice, says the tensions felt real even before the cast put the play on the stage.
"As we were working in this rehearsal room, what happened was, the language of the play and the way in which we interacted, as characters and as actors, was deeply agitating — in a great way. It made us very upset," she recalls. "And it made me feel very uncomfortable. And that is because the actual story of the play was working on us."
And Beatrice's discomfort, says Mosher, helps make her a pivotal force in the drama.
"It's Beatrice who drives the play, in a way, because it's Beatrice who knows what's going on. And from the first moments in the play, [she] is trying to warn Eddie and trying to warn Catherine that disaster lies ahead, unless they change their behavior."
'She's Not Innocent'
Johansson says Catherine's character grows up over the course of the play.
"She's not innocent," Johansson says. "She says in that second act, the beginning of the second act — she says, 'I know a lot more than people think I know. I'm not a baby.' And I think that she is, in a sense, aware of her effect on Eddie. I mean, she's young and she doesn't realize what the consequence of that is."
The consequence is that Eddie grows more and more haunted by feelings he doesn't dare express. He goes to a lawyer to try to figure out how to keep his niece from marrying her immigrant cousin. The lawyer warns him in the play's most direct language: "This is my last word, Eddie. Take it or not, it's your business. Morally, legally, you have no rights. You cannot stop it. ... A river will drown you if you buck it now. Let her go. And bless her."
But Eddie can't let her go — and the tension escalates when he comes home from work early, a little tipsy, and discovers that Catherine has slept with Rodolpho. In a highly charged scene, he first kisses Catherine on the lips, and then he does the same with Rodolpho.
"I can only imagine what it must've been like in 1955," Schreiber says. "That must've been great. But it's amazing: It still gets a big gasp, which is really fun. It almost throws me to hear the audience gasp like that, but I find it really exciting when they do."
The only way Eddie can prevent the wedding of Catherine to Rodolpho is to break another taboo: He becomes a snitch and calls Immigration to get the cousins deported.
"Eddie hates that he makes that phone call," Mosher says. "Clearly. I mean, Liev, you can see, is physically ill in front of you before he makes the phone call. But he has no choice. Like any character in a real tragedy, he only has this one choice — and he betrays his family and his friends and himself in that act."
And from there this distinctly American tragedy hurtles to its conclusion. Schreiber says he's astonished by how much Arthur Miller packed into his lean play, the outsized emotions.
"I just think Miller puts one hook after another into you, both as the actor and as the audience," he says. "Every scene has a massive hook in it that just gets you straight in your solar plexus and yanks you into the next scene."