A Better Picture | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Better Picture 

Early Miller shows his strengths, but also the weaknesses that mar his latest work.

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A View From the Bridge

American Theater Company

Arthur Miller's muscular writing in A View From the Bridge is as far removed from the bloviating of his inert new work, Finishing the Picture, as the lives of longshoremen are from those of Hollywood producers. If it did nothing else, American Theater Company's engaging revival of Miller's 1955 play would be worthwhile for reminding audiences that earlier in his career, he really did know his business.

Yet A View From the Bridge also demonstrates the roots of the failings that are now so plain in Finishing the Picture, being produced by the Goodman. The older play reveals Miller's weakness for telling the audience what to think of his characters. It sports passages of "fine writing" suggesting a misguided desire to be a novelist, when every novelist must envy Miller's instinct for structure and ear for the vernacular. It sags under his penchant for redundancy, as he states and restates and states again the work's themes like a teacher stuck with an unusually dense bunch of students. Considering these weaknesses, the wonder is not that the ATC production has some problems but that it remains a gripping experience. Credit is due equally to the play's solid construction and to a quartet of fine performances.

Eddie Carbone--an Italian-American longshoreman with a more than avuncular passion for the niece who lives with him--ultimately decides to betray everything in his life to prevent her from leaving him to get married. If you feel I've now spoiled the ending, don't worry: Miller does much the same, providing a narrator, the lawyer Alfieri, who foreshadows the action with all the subtlety of Brechtian supertitles. Playing the part, John Mohrlein has the thankless task of intoning, "I could see where this was headed" and "So Eddie Carbone faced his destiny--though what did a man like Eddie Carbone know of destiny?" (Miller used a similar narrative device in After the Fall; it worked equally well there.) There's no need to liken the Carbones' experience to Senecan tragedy unless incest, betrayal, and murder become trivial when the participants are "just" working-class Italians.

There's plenty of cringeworthy stereotyping of Italians in A View From the Bridge, but despite that and despite the "itsa good, thatsa nice" dialect Miller provides for the immigrant characters, the dialogue is eloquent enough for us to believe and care about what happens. And the plot has more climaxes than a porn flick: first Miller reveals Carbone's possessiveness of his niece, Katy; then his impotence with his wife; then his jealousy of the immigrant Rudolpho as he courts Katy; then his suspicion that Rudolpho is gay; then his decision to betray the young couple and his refusal to attend their wedding--and then there's the final scene. This cascade of events does give the proceedings a certain classical inevitability. And the plot's unfolding is definitely more interesting than in Finishing the Picture, where people sit around for two hours trying to decide whether to make an insurance claim.

This production rests on a superb performance by John Sterchi as the truculent Eddie, who feels besieged by everything outside himself--the law, recent immigrants, his wife, the economy--when the real culprit is his own feelings. A View From the Bridge is a challenge for contemporary actors because the subject of incest has gone from the unimaginable to the ho-hum theme of numerous Web sites. But Sterchi conveys so well Eddie's genuine ignorance of the sexual desire that drives him that almost right to the end we feel this trapped, terrified man is more sinned against than sinning. He gets excellent support from Mierka Girten as Eddie's wife, whose peacemaking role increasingly clashes with her growing understanding of Eddie's desire for his niece. Matthew Brumlow is delightful as charming playboy Rudolpho, who turns out to be strong enough to confront Eddie and rescue Katy, and Kern Wasan as fellow immigrant Marco delivers the brooding seriousness and moral clarity essential to Miller plays.

Unfortunately Kelly Breheny's Katy appears to be a half-wit rather than an innocent, so her dawning understanding of Eddie's obsession never rings true. And Mohrlein is miserably miscast and misdirected as Alfieri: for a start, his Chicago-accented English belies both the play's New York setting and the lawyer's acknowledgment that he didn't immigrate from Italy until his mid-20s.

Kiely moves this lengthy play along but seems unable to direct three people on a thrust stage without excluding audience members sitting on the sides. It's not easy, but Remy Bumppo, Chicago Shakespeare, and many other companies have mastered this skill. My neighbors and I spent far too much time looking at Eddie's back and his wife's profile while Katy, facing us, was completely obscured by the other two.

From the standpoint of maintaining dramatic tension, though, Kiely's direction falls short in only one scene. At the end of the first act Marco challenges Eddie to lift a chair by one leg. This turns out to be extremely difficult, and the fact that Eddie can't do it and Marco can is the insult to Eddie's masculinity that bears poison fruit in act two. In a recent New York revival, Eddie made many increasingly desperate efforts to lift the chair, so that when eventually Marco raised it in triumph, the moment felt like the final punch in a fight to the death. In this production, Eddie makes only a couple of pro forma attempts and Marco succeeds immediately. Both actors invest the scene with suitable gravitas, but in Kiely's interpretation the men are engaged in a test of skill--Marco knows how to do this and Eddie doesn't--rather than the test of strength Miller intended.

Though many of Miller's plays are less than perfect, the man who wrote Death of a Salesman and The Crucible can go to his maker unashamed--and the man who wrote A View From the Bridge has some things to be proud of too. The best thing to be said about Finishing the Picture is that it's inspired companies around the city to revisit Miller's work. Now if only he'd stop daubing at it.

When: Through 11/17: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

Price: $25-$30

Info: 773-929-1031

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.

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