Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dysfunctionality, USA

I have never seen any production by Arthur Miller. The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, nope. Haven't even seen the movies made of of all 3 of these.

Friday I corrected this literary deficiency and went to see A View From the Bridge, courtesy of a friend's extra ticket. We managed to miss the first scene courtesy of my bad directions. Set in early 19-something Brooklyn, this is the story of an Italian-American family (uncle-aunt-niece) who take in a couple of illegal immigrant cousins (married & single brothers) from the Old Country and the ensuing drama.

If this is what Miller's work is like, I'm surprised no one has done research to determine if there's an association between watching his work and an increased suicide rate. I guess the fact I was just morose, rather than seeking oblivion from the misery and futility of life, is due to the acting quality one normally finds at the Gutherie Theater.

Perhaps it was the initial "I wandered into the set of All In The Family" feeling, but I spent the first act wondering what god-awful thing was going to happen. The blatantly obvious foreshadowing in Scene 1 of some neighborhood guy ratting out illegal workers to the INS was so blatant that perhaps it was intended to leave me wondering 'when is he going to rat out these fellows' throughout the next 90 minutes? (BTW "submarines" must be an archaic antecedent to "wet backs").

Another surprise was the realization that the initial production date was 1955. I'm subsequently left unsurprised that the House Committee of UnAmerican Activities thought he was an undesirable character. The attitudes of the main character, Eddie, were unsurprising and perfectly acceptable for the 50s. Gays weren't exactly a widely embraced sector of American society; suspicion of illegal workers marrying just for their citizenship papers persists today. But, the final confrontation with his feelings for his neice, and his method for demonstrating the unworthiness of another man's affections for her was shocking. I just can't come to grips with that having been done in 1955. I suppose if it managed to shock me in 2008, it is a credit to the playwright's ability to draw me in to the play's setting, rather than my own.

The Actor playing Eddie was the picture perfect image of a 40s blue-collar archetype. I can see where Archie Bunker came from. The woman playing the 18 year old niece was an annoying version of the all-too-often-seen character which must be advertised as 'bouncy enthusiastic dotting daughter who is required to bouncily skip around the stage at all times'. Good lord, almighty - who in their right mind wants an actress to behave like this? Have you actually seen anyone over the age of 6 walk around the house like this? Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road ain't got nothing on this chick. If this was supposed to underscore her non-adult behavior towards her uncle, being his 'little girl', it failed and simply annoyed me. There must be other ways to convey this.

Acting aside - I find I'm generally not great at assessing the merits of actors in any meaningful way beyond 'I like it' - the framework within which the action occurs was really nice. The theater is big enough to allow a complex set to be built. This provided plenty of space without needing to have a huge footprint. The little details, especially how the secondary sets were moved in/out were nice. E.g. a group of longshoremen bring in a huge crate, open it, and voila! the desk for an office scene is left on the stage's skirt. The primary set of the family's house remained intact, while the other scenes were set around the skirts of the stage, allowing the home life of the typical dysfunctional American family to remain the center point of the story, keeping it in view the whole time.

Right after the set design, as the best part of the show was Rudolpho, the single brother who - of course - falls madly in love with the family's niece at first sight. Perhaps he was remarkable simply by dint of not being some stereotype. He flung himself into the part with the same enthusiastic un-self-consciousness that one expects from the character himself.

I have no set recommendation scale for plays, as I do for movies. So, "would I recommend it?" Yes, I would. Although it's not a 'drop everything and go see it if you can'.

Hmmm... I suppose I need a scale for theater ...

Worth the price of tickets & babysitter: go see it!
If there's an afternoon matinee ...
Well, if someone else has an extra ticket ...
You need to balance your checkbook, don't you?


ccyager said...

Yeah, this play would have been very shocking in 1955, especially in New York City, where it's set. And I think the director wanted the actors to capture some innocence of that time as well as the dark underbelly. John Carrol Lynch, who played Eddie, was superb, as were the two actors who played the Italian illegals. Rudolpho kept reminding me of Jude Law in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and Marco of Daniel Day-Lewis, in physical appearance and gesture.

Arthur Miller is not my favorite playwright, but he's always been a writer dedicated to challenging accepted beliefs. America has a history of demonizing immigrants, especially illegals -- Martin Scorcese spent an entire almost 3-hour movie on this with "Gangs of New York" -- and what Miller focused on in this play was how regular people they are. They want what Americans want for themselves -- a good life, a home, family, comfort and love. And it's not any kind of prejudice that motivates Eddie to do what he does in the end, but his incestuous feelings for his niece.

I don't think Miller writes about perfect American families in any of his plays or prose -- his own family life was far from perfect. After all, he tried to save Marilyn Monroe from herself, then wrote a play about it ("After the Fall"). His daughter, Rebecca, has explored their own dysfunction in her movies and prose, too.

It's always interesting to hear another perspective. If I get anymore extra tickets, I'll ask you again to go so you can see more theater at the Guthrie! (smile)

Gopher MPH said...

odd, about Jude Law. I was thinking the same thing, with the blonde hair & general physique... The Eddie reminded me a bit of James Gandolphini's take on "Tony Soprano" in the HBO show. (Talk about dysfunctional!)

I really liked "Gangs of New York", despite its length. I have, as one might imagine, a deeply held opinion of immigrants. Which predates Mr. Gopher.

It's interesting how Americans went from "I want to be American" (1955) to "I'm Italian-German-Swedish-Swahili-American" (2008). I can't count the number of times I've said "my husband is German" only to have someone say "so am I". I've never been sure how rude it would be to point out that I mean he's really German, when they add that it's their great-grandparents who are from the Old Country.

Today everyone wants to be American-plus. Even the rabidly nationalistic, isolationist idiots can't really embrace the idea of being "just" American. Apologies to my forefathers, but I'm American. I never tell anyone I'm "Irish-American". I find Irish history interesting, but I'm American. Rather like Rudolopho: does he like Italy, yes; does he want to go back there, no. He was the clearest, most "American" voice of them all: I just want a job to work and earn money so support a family.

ccyager said...

I hear you. A lot of people have asked me if I'm German because of my last name (and they also ask if I'm related to Chuck, which I'm not) and I tell them, no, I'm a mutt. Americans ARE like mutts if they're many-generation Americans. So, I'm a mutt.

Now, I wonder if this kind of "balkanization" of one's origins is a result of immigrants wanting to hang onto their home country culture, language and customs as well as an identity they're comfortable with. We've always had immigrants, at least for the last 100+ years, and only recently has it become an issue to have more than one language for legal documents, on TV ads, on street signs, etc. Before, immigrants understood and accepted that they needed to learn the language used here, just as they would expect an American to learn the native language of their country if he/she planned to live there. Which is not to say, leave them on their own to learn English. We also need to help and support them in the process which I don't think has been happening as much as it could.

I liked "Gangs of New York" too, especially Daniel Day-Lewis who is such an incredible actor. His villains are never all black. I'd love to see him and Ralph Fiennes work together....