… 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.