One good reason to look at the past: We tend to think, today, that our lives are hemmed in, small and frustrating. Our only escapes are virtual. The sense of not-living seems to have become increasingly a part of life; most Americans under 30 apparently see themselves as either vampires or zombies. That’s where old stories, or stories about earlier eras, can be helpful: They show us that people felt trapped then, too—and without our labor-saving appliances, our deluge of entertainment options, our global means of communication. Seeing the limited options in which a human soul could get caught, half a century or a century ago, makes you feel alive rather than merely undead.
Eddie Carbone (Liev Schreiber), the longshoreman hero of Arthur Miller’s often-revived 1956 drama, A View From the Bridge (Cort Theatre), is a man trebly trapped. He’s enmeshed in a tight-knit waterfront social world with its own strict social code, in a glum marriage that grows more depressing yearly, and in a fixation, of which he has only a flickering guilty awareness, on the beautiful young niece, Catherine (Scarlett Johansson), whom he and his wife, Bea (Jessica Hecht), have raised from childhood. Along come two illegal immigrants, distant relatives of Bea’s, who hole up in the Carbones’ cramped apartment. The younger, Rodolpho (Morgan Spector), handsome and unmarried, embodies continental notions of masculinity not common in Eddie’s part of Red Hook. Rodolpho and Catherine hit it off, and what follows has the grim inevitability of a Malibu mudslide after a heavy rain.
Eddie’s tragedy is a curious one, all based on his denial of unconscious impulses obvious to everyone around him. Very American, that. “He allowed himself to be wholly known,” says lawyer Alfieri (Michael Cristofer), the play’s combination narrator and Greek chorus, summing Eddie up at the end. The passive voice—not “He revealed himself” or “declared himself,” but “allowed” others to know him—makes clear that Eddie is not the tragic hero who comes to know himself. A View From the Bridge takes place in a parallel world to events outside. The HUAC investigations and the blacklisting that followed were in full swing.
Many of Miller’s colleagues, including his closest creative partner, director Elia Kazan, named names; Miller himself was among those blacklisted. Like Eddie’s accusations against Rodolpho, the charge that the blacklistees were, or had been, Communists, and were therefore dangerous, might or might not have been true; the point was that denunciation was none of Eddie’s business. Kazan, in lieu of collaborating with Miller on View, teamed up with another name-namer, writer Budd Schulberg, to present his own version of the material in On the Waterfront (1954): Terry Malloy (Brando), who denounces waterfront racketeers and gets shot down for it, is Eddie Carbone revised into a model of civic virtue. Miller’s version rings truer, as Gregory Mosher’s taut new production demonstrates.
Memorable Eddies have come in all shapes and sizes; the latest, Schreiber, ranks very high on the list. Everything’s hidden; Schreiber’s gift for letting you see what he’s not showing matches this role perfectly, as does his burly physical presence. He gets especially strong support from Johansson, clearly an actress of skill and presence, not merely another two-dimensional puff pastry. Mosher makes one or two odd slips: He rushes the epilogue, slightly dampening the effect of Cristofer’s intriguing, broken-rhythmed Alfieri, and he lets Hecht fall into the most common trap for actresses playing Bea, which is playing Eddie’s negative view of her. Even so, the staging builds powerfully; John Lee Beatty’s set and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting are exceptionally evocative.
The hilariously extravagant set (by Alexander Dodge) and costumes (by Jane Greenwood) for Nicholas Martin’s Roundabout revival of another often-seen work, Noël Coward’s Present Laughter (1938), don’t conceal the fact that here, too, the hero is trapped, albeit in a more comfortable snare than Eddie Carbone’s. Garry Essendine (Victor Garber), the narcissistic playwright-actor who is Coward’s affectionate self-caricature, moans under the burden of his own celebrity. Everybody wants him for something; those closest to him seem most eager to betray him, whether by booking his new show into a theater he loathes or mistakenly admitting a loony-tune aspiring playwright (Brooks Ashmanskas) whose ravings drive Garry nuts.
In recent decades, stars of gigantic charisma (George C. Scott) or flamboyance (Frank Langella) have seized on the showy opportunities inherent in Garry’s dilemma, but the play’s elegant balance of neatly piled successive crises really only comes through when played by a more quietly glowing charmer like Garber. With help from Harriet Harris, acidulating sweetly as Garry’s loyal secretary, and Lisa Banes, spreading adorable rue as his estranged but loyal wife, Martin keeps Garber spinning gracefully—style-setter Garry couldn’t spin any other way—through the accelerating action. Only Ashmanskas, as the young loon, skillfully but unappealingly makes his craziness seem altogether too real in which everything needs to be touched lightly.
The third and last three-hour segment of Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle (Signature) brings the story around to something not exactly like its starting point. Cheated, in Part 1, of a proper boyhood by his father’s early death and his mother’s remarriage to a man who dislikes him, Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck) finds himself, at the end of Part 3, the struggling father of a small boy and cheated once again, this time of a reasonable share in his wealthy father-in-law’s estate.
What significance Foote means us to draw from Horace’s story isn’t always clear. Taken as a whole, the trilogy shows a steady slippage of focus. Full of group comings and goings that, in Michael Wilson’s production, often look mechanical, Part 3 seems awash in the reiterated family data and town gossip that, in earlier segments, function as a dramatic contrast to Horace’s embittered silence. Even the climax, in which he finally explodes at his insufficiently caring mother, is overshadowed by a secondary character’s having a similar but showier explosion. Still, the work has enough substance to support its three-evening length, especially with performers like Pat Bowie, Annalee Jefferies, Maggie Lacey, and Pamela Payton-Wright to articulate it.