Two Vintage Plays; Two New Hits
One opened in 1922 and ran precisely two months; the other debuted in 1955 and managed to run twice as long. Both left many Broadway critics and theatergoers unimpressed.
Alas, Ripple Effect Artists’ ADDING MACHINE has closed, but I’m hoping we haven’t heard the last of it. Its bare-bones production was as potent as the one Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE is getting.
Did Elmer Rice name his married couple Mr. and Mrs. Zero because that number represents the chemistry and love they have for each other? No, later we’ll meet other numbered people, as Rice makes the point – and remember: this was 1922 – that we’re losing our humanity and identities.
Twenty-seven years before Willy Loman would ask Howard for a raise, Mr. Zero – also from his wife’s nudging – goes to his boss with the same request. Like Willy, he’s fired, although the reason given here is that an adding machine has made him expendable.
Willy goes home and kills himself; Mr. Zero takes a very different option. By the start of Act Two, we wonder if Thornton Wilder got one of his OUR TOWN ideas from THE ADDING MACHINE.
Rice then brings in a bit of Darwinism and philosophy that would cheer Ayn Rand. He anticipates computers and downsizing that’s all too recognizable. The line “At my age, who’s gonna give me a job?” hasn’t aged at all, has it? THE ADDING MACHINE could even be seen as a plea for everyone to go into business for himself.
Justin Bennett directed with the right eeriness that expressionistic drama needs. His cast was exemplary, but Kevin Sebastian still stood out as Mr. Zero in one of the finest performances of the season. No, let’s say “one of the finest performances of the year,” for the season has only been on for five months, while what we’ve had of 2015 is more than twice as long.
Although Sebastian had to be completely silent in Scene One, he had much opportunity over the next two hours to show the pain, indignity, shame and humiliation that kept him from being able to embrace his happiness when it was offered him. (Bigotry was a factor, too.)
Meanwhile at the Lyceum, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE starts with Eddie Carbone and a co-worker scrubbing off all the dirt that they’d accumulated that day by working as Brooklyn longshoremen. In a way, it’s a metaphor for famed maverick director Ivo van Hove’s washing away the memory of previous productions.
Jan Versweyveld’s set is reminiscent of a boxing ring, albeit one surrounded by a foot-high plexiglass shelf instead of ropes. Van Hove continues the prizefight imagery by often having his characters circle around each other in the way a boxer does when carefully assessing an opponent.
Shakespeare’s plays are often done on unit sets, aren’t they? Well, this story of Eddie, who loved not wisely but too well, is Shakespearean in its tragic scope – although its characters are far from kings and queens: Eddie, the workhorse; Beatrice, the housewife; Catherine, their niece, for whom Eddie lusts.
She leads him on, although actress Phoebe Fox – even while jumping up and into his arms -- shows us that Catherine doesn’t know it. This happens often, forcing Beatrice to make the distinct decision to turn away. She doesn’t want to acknowledge what she knows in her heart is happening.
Beatrice eventually does ask Eddie the pointed question “When am I gonna be a wife again?” It sounds euphemistic to us in 2015, but imagine how ‘50s audiences reacted. In those days, women were thought to be uninterested in sex or even repelled by it; they were simply good soldieresses in allowing their husbands to have it. It’s an important line, and here’s where von Hove made his only mistake: he has Beatrice say it while her back is to the audience.
Some of the audience can see her, however, for the stage is flanked with on-stage bleachers. These only offer side views, but theatergoers would be well-advised to take them rather than center seats in the second balcony. Von Hove has much of Miller’s dialogue spoken very softly, and unless the Lyceum’s acoustics are better than I think, theatergoers up there can expect to miss as much as half the play.
What’s also low volume (but thank the Lord for this) is the Bernard Herrmann-ish music that plays for most of the show. Sometimes it’s liturgical, reminding us of the influence the Catholic Church has in this neck of Red Hook – where “Pray for her” is given as advice and even considered a solution.
Sometimes the music gives way to a seemingly incessant drumbeat that threatens to drive us as mad as the Chinese water torture. It does, however, also remind us of a ticking time bomb that is also calculating the inexorable passage of minutes and seconds until the powerful climax.
Here’s where van Hove proves himself to be more than just a gimmicky director. As the drama accelerates, he creates a mood of heart-in-mouth tension. The old “you can’t look at an accident but can’t look away, either” analogy is apt.
And to think how happy everyone is when Marco and Rodolpho, two relatives from Italy, arrive for an extended stay. When Eddie tells them that they’ll be making $30 or $40 a week, they run to each other, embrace and scream in delight at their good fortune. The audience laughs hollowly, for it knows that such a payday is not the streets-paved-with-gold bonanza these young men think it is.
Rodolpho does strike gold in a different way: Catherine. Van Hove adds something to the scene in which the lovers are home alone and take advantage of it. Catherine removes her blouse and Rodolpho strips off his shirt seconds before Eddie is heard offstage arriving home and calling for Bea. Both lovers have enough time to dress; von Hove has Catherine quickly put on her blouse, but keeps him shirtless. In this production, Rodolpho defiantly wants Eddie to know what’s going on.
Not unlike THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, repression leads to disaster. It’s all narrated by Alfieri, who’s usually played as a dispassionate observer. Here von Hove reminds us that Alifieri grew up on these streets and hasn’t shaken his roots. When Eddie wants answers that no lawyer can legally give, Michael Gould shows hair-trigger-temper impatience. This makes the production more galvanizing, right up to the powerfully imaginative ending that shows that bloodshed affects everyone.
Mark Strong excels as Eddie with a strong body, single-minded outlook and, to horribly mix a metaphor, a soft heart with an Achilles heel. The equally excellent Nicola Walker shows us that Beatrice has the ability to see all sides of a story and react fairly. Russell Tovey’s best moment (of many) comes when Rodolpho gets a chance to show his nobility, which ensures to us that Catherine is getting a good guy.
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE premiered as a one-act play on a double bill with A MEMORY OF TWO MONDAYS. Miller later expanded it, but 27 years had to pass (almost to the day) before it was revived on Broadway.
And yet, starting in 1983 and including now – a time span not that much longer than 27 years – BRIDGE has been viewed in four separate Broadway revivals. The previous three have at least been nominated for a Best Revival Tony, and the 1998 airing won the prize. Ivo van Hove’s production might well get both the nomination and the award.
And THE ADDING MACHINE? The play was revived at the Phoenix Theatre just as off-Broadway was getting going in 1956, but lasted only a week. And of course there was that short-lived musical version in 2008. But unlike A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, Rice’s play has never had a second Broadway chance. Producers, pick up the recent Ripple Effect Artists’ production and right that wrong.
— Peter Filichia