Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Arthur Miller

Review | Incident At Vichy | By Arthur Miller | Directed by Michael Wilson | Signature Theatre

… and then there were none … 

In many ways, this is Arthur Miller’s most pessimistic play, and also perhaps his greatest.  At least, this outstanding production makes it seem it is.

In Vichy, France during the German occupation of World War II, eight men have been hauled in off the streets one by one, and locked in a detainment room to await examination by a crew of Nazis in the terrifying room next door.  The Nazis are looking to “export” Jews – most of those here are Jewish – as well as Gypsies and Communists.  The Nazi “anthropologist” will find who’s Jewish by pseudo-scientific methods plus checking for circumcision while the German officer maintains order.  Early on, a businessman, who isn’t Jewish, is released after his examination, and a gypsy is taken out of sight to the examination room – he’s headed for the trains to Poland and the concentration camp – or according to some accounts, worse.

Like “ten little Indians,” the men disappear one by one by one into the room and we never see most of them again.  Meanwhile, the ones left talk, veering between a terrified understanding of what awaits them from the Nazis and rationalizations about why “their case” might be different.  The waiter takes hope in that every morning he serves the German officer at the restaurant.  In a fascinating and unexpected character study, the actor, Monceau, finds a kind  of confidence in his own élan, while Von Berg, an Austrian aristocrat, thinks he’ll make it out safely because of his high position.  The Boy, not yet 15, thinks they don’t take minors – don’t count on it.

Bayard, a Communist, and in the know about things, has the most terrifying view of their imminent fate, while finding hope and sustenance in his Socialist vision of the future.  For now they’re trapped but, using his working man’s knowledge of trains, this future-looking man finds a way to prepare his future escape — that is, if it will work.

Leduc, a psychiatrist who fought against the Germans before the occupation took hold, tries to stir them to collective action to save themselves.  First he exhorts the able-­bodied men among them to overcome the single guard at the gate and make a run for freedom, but they see his plan as futile, even counter-productive since each individually clings to the possibility that he will somehow be spared.  Leduc is equally unsuccessful at persuading the German officer to free them.

Miller’s well known plays  All My Sons, Death Of  A Salesman,  and A View From The Bridge  are focused on individual tragic figures: the catastrophic events that engulf them are the  result of an interplay between societal iniquities and individual weaknesses. Not everyone carries character flaws likes the ones that lead Miller’s tragic figures to disaster – they are special cases, and most people can avoid the pitfalls that  George Keller, Willie Loman, or Eddie Carbone fall into, and come out better.  This is less true of The Crucible,  where human nature is on trial as much as the flawed but ethical John Proctor: in this way, Incident At Vichy is like The Crucible, though Incident At Vichy has greater philosophical breadth.

In Incident At Vichy, humanity is the tragic figure.  Self-interest subverts any attempt at positive collective action, words are useless, and humans are murderous.  Because of these themes, as often said that in Incident At Vichy, Miller explores how the holocaust could have developed.  Human nature makes it so.  The play ends with an act of stunning altruism, but the heroism of this selfless act is compromised, because this is a man who, because of personal, private despair, has already demonstrated his wish to die.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and Michael Wilson’s direction has a tense driving force .  It’s a “one act” play but in two parts, and has all the feel of a full length play.  Incident At Vichy leaves you with the sense that what you have seen surely happened and in just this way, and, since the play is based on actual events during the Nazi occupation of France, it did happen – though not in these words.  Out of actual events, the playwright’s shaping purpose created a powerful work of art.

Incident At Vichy plays at Manhattan’s Signature Theatre on West 42nd Streeet through December 13, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | A View From The Bridge | By Arthur Miller | Directed by Ivo Van Hove | Young Vic | Lyceum Theatre

 … longshoreman as tragic hero … 

The Young Vic staging, directed by Ivo Van Hove, brings a breath-catching universality to Arthur Miller’s naturalistic drama of Italian Americans.

In this exciting production, dominated by the powerful acting of Mark Strong in the key role of the longshoreman Eddie Carbone, and excellent acting throughout, Van Hove takes Miller’s tragic tale of an Italian-American family set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood in the 1950’s and abstracts it, pulling out from the play its universal elements while submerging the specifics.

The play is framed by a narrator, the local lawyer Alfieri, who comments on the action and is filled with foreboding, like a Greek chorus.  It’s about an explosion in a nuclear family, with Freudian implications.

Eddie works on the docks to support his wife, Beatrice, and their niece, Catherine, orphaned as a small child and whom they’ve raised and cared for like a daughter. Catherine’s eighteen now, though, and things are about to change in the Carbone family.  Catherine’s thrilled that she’s been offered a well-paying job as a stenographer. Beatrice encourages Catherine’s moving on towards independence and adulthood, but Eddie, over-attached, erotically, incestuously tied to Catherine though he doesn’t understand that, doesn’t want to let her go.

With Eddie shaken by the threat of losing Catherine to the world, Marco and Rodolfo, Beatrice’s relatives, arrive as illegal immigrants from Sicily and the Carbones let them stay in their small apartment — it’s the decent thing to do. Both men get work on the docks:  Marco, who’s extraordinarily strong, is working for the benefit of his three children and wife, still in impoverished Sicily, while unmarried Rodolfo hopes for a career as a singer in America.

Watching Catherine’s obvious attraction to handsome, joyous Rodolfo, Eddie burns with rage and fear.  The two young people go out together – the Brooklyn Paramount’s a big draw – and soon they’re deeply in love and planning to marry.

This is beyond bearing for Eddie: he makes a frantic visit to Alfieri who tells him there’s no available recourse in the law to disrupt their plan to marry.  And here comes Arthur Miller’s brilliant irony: Eddie does use  “the law” to break up the young couple:  he commits an act so despicable that, though not against the law, is worse than murder, as the Sicilian immigrants, the Italian American community of Red Hook, and most of the world, see it.

Thus Arthur Miller brings his “Greek tragedy,” as he thought of it, to its horrific conclusion.

But unlike the Greeks, or Shakespeare, Miller’s protagonist is not a king or a figure elevated in society:  he’s an ordinary man.  The longshoreman is a tragic hero, whose life and suffering, for this modern playwright, holds the potential for significance and impact that traditional tragedy accorded only to those in high positions.

Perhaps Miller wanted to underline that profound and important point:  for that, or some other reason, he wrote an epilogue, spoken by Alfieri,  that I find the only weak moment in the play, in which he tells us what we are to think about Carbone. It has a Shakespearean ring to it but seems forced — given what Eddie did and why, it’s hard to go along with Miller on the epilogue.

Van Hove’s range of theatrical abstraction is fascinating.  With regard to the set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, he moves the action from the small, realistic 1950’s Brooklyn apartment of earlier productions to a bland outdoor courtyard, a large rectangle with no defining architectural or other features.   The characters, whatever they are wearing, are barefoot, which is broadly humanizing and gives them a touching vulnerability.

The costuming shakes one out of  assuming anything about the locale.  As Beatrice, Nicola Walker, with a smooth pale coiffure, grey silk blouse and tailored skirt, suggests a refined everywoman rather than a Brooklyn housewife (though her soft Brooklyn accent is perfect).  Eddie is dressed as a longshoreman – or any hard working man.  Catherine, well played by Phoebe Fox, wears a mismatched t-shirt and short skirt that conveys an idea of transition from being a child, in love in a child’s way with Eddie, to her new maturity and love of Rodolfo, but a girl from Brooklyn then would have coordinated her outfit.

A comparable approach to how the characters speak, with mismatched accents, works less well because it’s distracting.  Beatrice has a Brooklyn accent while others sound broadly American, British, Irish and other.  Marco and Rodolfo arrive in the United States speaking perfect American English (I couldn’t help thinking “No!”).   The mismatch of accents calls too much attention to itself.

Abstraction in the arts is a kind of bargain, lessening sensuous detail and heightening essence.  This production of A View From the Bridge succeeds in giving powerful and persuasive universality to the emotional conflicts of the Carbone family.  On the other hand, the ethnic immediacy, physical context, social issues and gritty realism that also fired Miller in writing the play are submerged.  I’m thrilled to have seen this version of A View From The Bridge and feel it brought me to a deeper knowledge of the play than I had before …. but I miss the old neighborhood.

A View From The Bridge plays at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in mid-town Manhattan through February 21, 2016.

Review | All My Sons by Arthur Miller | Starring Alec Baldwin and Laurie Metcalf | Directed by Stephen Hamilton | Guild Hall, Southampton, Long Island

I love it when, looking over the set before the play begins one sees onstage a house with wood shingles, small town or rural, with a porch and a yard and the suggestion of a lived in interior.

Picnic, The Fifth of July, August: Osage County, All My Sons are some of them.  It raises a pleasant nostalgia and eases loneliness – one’s going to meet the family!  One does, and with it the dramatic tensions and hidden truths behind the appealing setting.

Set in August 1946, shortly after the end of World War II (and first produced in 1947), All My Sons takes place in and around the porch and yard of Joe Keller, a successful small town manufacturer, and his wife Kate.  Their son Larry, a WWII pilot, is MIA and presumed to have died in action, though Kate vehemently refuses to believe he is dead.

Their other son, Chris, has now fallen in love with Ann Deever who’d been Larry’s girlfriend, and when she arrives at the house for a visit, Kate, certain that Larry’s still alive, finds their romance disloyal and unbearable. To make it worse, Ann’s also the daughter of Joe’s former partner, Steve Deever.  Joe and Steve had been tried for shipping from their factory mis-manufacturered cracked aircraft cylinder heads for P-40 planes during the war but Joe was exonerated (he was said to be home with the flu the day the parts went out) while his partner, Deever, went to jail, where he still sits. To knowingly send out faulty engine parts is so horrible that neither Ann nor her brother George have so much as written their father since he went to jail.

Only, we learn, that George Deever, now a lawyer, has just paid his father a visit in jail.  And that, and other hints, make the Keller’s – and us – realize that, amidst the refreshing grape juice and romance and Joe’s plans for a great dinner out that night,  that matter of guilt with the cracked airplane parts simply will not disappear, in spite of the Kellers’ desperate attempt to bury it in the past.

Consider what’s at stake.  Larry Keller was a pilot presumed to have died in a combat mission.  If Joe had a part in letting the faulty aircraft parts out of the factory, he would, essentially, be responsible for his own son’s death – a thought beyond bearing.  And as we begin to consider that possibility, we realize that Kate’s insistence that her son is still alive isn’t just a mother’s grief-driven craziness – for Larry to be alive is her husband’s only hope.

And as things turn out, it is a thought beyond bearing.

It’s not for nothing that Arthur Miller have Joe’s factory manufacturing parts for the P-40 because it was considered our best fighter plane available in large numbers – in other words, there was a rush on them and so, when some of the cylinder heads came through the manufacturing process with a small crack, Joe was frantic to fulfill his quotas and, as he says, not lose his contract, and so he sent out the faulty parts with an ineffective patch.  For Miller, this decent man’s tragedy is a compound of personality, capitalism and war.  They way the author gives full due to each of these elements is part of the greatness of the play.

The play is not perfect – there are a few implausibilities – but it’s powerful and compelling.  This is the first time I’ve seen it and I think, among Miller’s most serious plays such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, this is my favorite.

In this superb production Joe, played by Alec Baldwin, comes across at first as easy-going in style but driven from within. He speaks with an intimate and fascinating fast-talking hucksterism to the mark for the confident businessman who’s determined – oh so determined – to make the sale, and he builds the part to great intensity. Laurie Metcalf gives a nothing-short-of-great performance as the anguished Kate with much to hide, jerkily holding to the norms of social interactions while electrified from head to toe with fear and the determination to control a ruinous situation.

Miller based All My Sons in part on a news story about an aeronautical manufacturing company in Ohio that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft parts, but he altered the story greatly.  He also drew inspiration from Henrik Ibsen, both for his understanding of “the well made play,” and, from The Wild Duck, for the relationship between the two business partners.

I think also the play gains force from Miller’s adherence to Aristotle’s rules of unities in his Poetics:  All My Sons is indeed a single story that unfolds in one place in a period of a day — and with a relentless uncovering of hidden guilt worthy of Greek tragedy.  These are among the influences that flowed into Miller’s brilliant and original drama, a play fired by his grief over the war, his compassion for human beings, and his sense of justice.  All that and a young playwright’s desire to write a play that as he said would be well received, and it was!

All My Sons is a gripping evening of theater.  The story is tragic and one leaves exhilarated.

All My Sons plays at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY, through July 28, 2015.  As I write, it’s near the end of its short run and the remaining performances are sold out.

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