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Pier Pressure

Vagabond Players Master Arthur Miller’s Tale of Troubled Love Down by the Docks

HOOKED: Tony Colavito puts the moves on Cheryl Finlayson in A View From The Bridge.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 3/9/2005

A View From the Bridge

By Arthur Miller

At the Vagabond Theater through March 26

In 1924, the German literary critic Walter Benjamin defined enduring works of art as those whose “deeply embedded” truths persist long after their historical subject matter has ceased to be relevant or familiar. The enduring power of Benjamin’s own insight is itself a performance of his theory. Another is Arthur Miller’s 1955 play, A View From the Bridge, currently onstage at the Vagabond Theater.

Despite being dated and somewhat quaint—or precisely because of that dated quaintness—Miller’s tale of a Brooklyn, N.Y., longshoreman’s catastrophic obsession with his 17-year-old niece retains its upsetting power, and is a testament to the immortality of the great playwright, who died last month at age 80.

Red Hook dockworker Eddie Carbone (Tony Colavito) develops a fixation for his orphaned niece, Catherine (Cheryl Finlayson), whom he has raised as a daughter. Eddie’s repressed feelings erupt when his wife’s Italian cousins move in with the Carbones, and innocent Catherine takes up with the younger one, Rodolpho (Ira Gamerman), a rakish blond who sings, dances, sews, and sweeps her off her feet. Under the transparent guise of protective father figure, Eddie tries to convince Catherine (and himself, too) that Rodolpho is interested only in an American passport, but the girl is no more able to control her feelings for Rodolpho than Eddie is able to manage his mounting obsession with her. That the lead character will eventually betray everything that ought to matter more than lust—marriage, community, honor—is as inevitable as death, and no less awful for its predictability. Such a piece of work is man, and always has been.

Director Steve Yeager wisely plays up the old-fashioned feeling, capping Miller’s melodramatic scenes with music from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. There’s a gritty black-and-white-movie vibe to the production. The Italian-Americans ham up their Brooklyn accents, and the Italian immigrants roll their “r”s with r-r-r-relish. The Vagabond stage is tiny, but the cast plays it big, as if yearning to be heard by the Fells Point waterfront outside.

The acting is excellent across the board. Tony Calavito’s Eddie is a mesmerizing train wreck, whose commanding physical presence only underscores his ultimate impotence. Laura Gifford plays his neglected wife, Beatrice, with wisdom and acidity. Though the play is ably narrated by neighborhood lawyer Alfieri (Barry Bach), Bea is the only one who can see what’s happening between Eddie and Catherine, and her impatient devotion to her husband is heartbreaking to watch. There’s much in the play that feels stylized and larger than life, but in Gifford’s mouth the overlapping rhythms of Miller’s dialogue come out perfectly natural.

Cheryl Finlayson’s portrayal of Catherine’s naive sexuality is, well, hot. This is a difficult coming-of-age role, requiring the actor to tightrope-walk the very thin line between schoolgirl and home wrecker, but Finlayson never falters. Moreover, it’s her convincing adoration for Rodolpho that makes Ira Gamerman’s performance effective; physically, he’s no Don Juan, but the recent Towson University graduate makes up for it with a confident swagger and a surprisingly sweet singing voice. Gamerman may not look the part, but his older brother Marco, Mark Poremba’s fresh-off-the-boat immigrant laborer, appears to have stumbled out of central casting. Which makes sense: Marco is the most archetypal of the characters—the noble Old World foil to Eddie’s modern turpitude—and Poremba makes the most of his character’s single dimension.

Arthur Miller’s original one-act version failed to find an audience in its 1955 Broadway premiere. The playwright attributed in part the subsequent London success of his two-act revision to the British production’s ability to afford 20 actors to populate the crowd scenes. Vagabond proves Miller wrong at least on this point; the four actors who energetically represent the Red Hook community (Jesse Swain, Tom Lyle, J.R. Barton, and Bruce Levy) more than fill out the “wrath of the tribe,” as Miller once put it, which poor Eddie invokes upon himself.

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