Anchored with two genius lead performances by Ray Abruzzo and Kim Chase, Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” is a 1950s period production at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. A tale of sexual obsession and betrayal. On the face of it, the story chronicles the arrival of two relatives from Italy, undocumented immigrants, who come to stay in the tiny cramped New York apartment of longshoreman Eddie Carbone, his beleaguered wife Beatrice, and his wife’s orphaned teen niece that they are raising.
The deeper resonance of “A View from the Bridge” is captivating in its history of Cold War machinations, Hollywood development hell, the long arm of the mafia, personal vengeance, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. It’s delectable, with magnificent personal and sexual drama that inform the creation and dynamics of this play. As Miller said about himself, “The plays are my autobiography. I can’t write plays that don’t sum up where I am. I am in all of them. I don’t know how else to go about writing.”
Arthur Miller originally worked on an unproduced screenplay drama about the waterfront, The Hook (The Hook has since been resurrected and produced as a stage play). After Miller’s Polish Jewish immigrant father lost all his wealth in the Great Depression, a teenage Miller crash landed in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn and became fascinated by the “sinister waterfront world of gangster-ridden unions, assassinations, beatings, bodies thrown into the lovely bay at night.” Miller himself worked nights at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as a ship fitter’s helper. He based The Hook on a 1930s true story, about a Red Hook longshoreman, Pete Panto, who was murdered by the mafia when he took on the dock’s corrupt union leaders.
Miller’s friend and frequent collaborator Elia Kazan directed his early plays to glory, including All My Sons and his mega-hit Death of a Salesman. Kazan was going to direct The Hook, but the film died in development at Columbia, when notorious studio head Harry Cohn wanted to make the mafia villains into communists. There was purportedly some FBI concern that Miller’s original script might incite trouble on the docks that were supplying the US military, fighting in Korea at that time. It probably didn’t help that the studio head of Columbia himself had deep ties to organized crime, not only through working with the mafia-controlled film unions but also through his personal and business friendships with prominent mobsters like Mickey Cohen. But Arthur Miller refused to change the mafia elements of the script into anti-communist ones. He then received a telegram from Harry Cohn, “ITS INTERESTING HOW THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT.”
Not long after, Arthur Miller’s rich creative friendship with Elia Kazan ended, when Miller felt betrayed by Kazan naming suspected communists for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. An outraged Miller wrote his 1953 play The Crucible. Ostensibly about Salem and witch hunts, The Crucible is a well-known takedown of the paranoia, blacklists, and informing of the McCarthy era.
Elia Kazan in turn attacked Miller by stealing elements from their failed Columbia project, The Hook. Elia Kazan directed On the Waterfront in 1954, written by Budd Schulberg, another HUAC informer. In this Academy-award-winning film, the informer, a dockworker played by Marlon Brando, is the hero who dares to speak the truth and name names within a corrupt union and the murder of an innocent man. Along with being a rip off of Arthur Miller’s earlier waterfront screenplay The Hook, it is Kazan’s passionate defense of the high-mindedness of his own informing about suspected communists.
Arthur Miller fired back with his 1955 play, A View from the Bridge. Here the dockworker and informer Eddie is driven not by idealism, but by perverse personal motives, and meets universal disgrace, and condemnation. Although Kazan and Miller reconciled later, their friendship and fertile collaboration never reached its former heights. The eulogy delivered for Eddie in A View from the Bridge might as well be a eulogy for Arthur Miller’s close relationship with Kazan:
“Even as I know how wrong he was…I tremble for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him more than all my sensible clients. And yet, it is better to settle for half, it must be! And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain … alarm.”
Some claim that it was Marilyn Monroe who prompted Arthur Miller to soften the sharp edges around the play and write this eulogy for informer Eddie, and who tried to mend the friendship between Kazan and Miller.
A conflicted Arthur Miller eventually left his loyal, supportive wife to marry Marilyn. “She was a whirling light to me then,’ Miller wrote about Marilyn Monroe, “all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence.” It was a dumpster fire of a marriage that lasted 5 years. Not long after divorcing Miller, Marilyn would be dead from an overdose — or a Kennedy / mob-ordered assassination, depending on how deep down the rabbit hole of history you want to go. Miller lived until 2005, but he never again captured his former success. Among the dark fruits of the spectacularly doomed Miller-Monroe relationship was A View from the Bridge.
In Ruskin Group Theatre’s production of A View from the Bridge, director Mike Reilly keeps everything moving along so quickly that the two-hour running time seems to go by in a blink of an eye. The staging by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is excellent and takes advantage of the unusual space in ingenious and dynamic ways.
Ray Abruzzo is peerless as main character Eddie. He brings enormous depth, humanity, range, and an off-the-cuff casualness to a play where the 1950s period setting and the arcane Arthur Miller rhythms of speech can honey-lure the players into golden stiff amber. In every moment, Ray Abruzzo seems vital, alive, organic, and unselfconscious, able to handle the mannered dialogue in a completely effortless, contemporary way. There is never a touch of sentimentality or cliche in his performance.
On the page, there is a lot about A View from the Bridge that feels creaky and problematic, and the character of Eddie is disturbing. Eddie is semi-incestuous, controlling, predatory, homophobic, vindictive, a neglectful and cruel husband, a low-level scammer and betrayer. But in the hands of Ray Abruzzo, Eddie seems like the voice of reason, a misunderstood, alienated, and profoundly sympathetic man. Perhaps most recognized for his role as Little Carmine Lupertazzi in The Sopranos, Ray Abruzzo’s accomplished career includes starring roles on Dynasty, Night Court, and The Practice. This is a jewel box treasure of a performance.
Arthur Miller as a playwright has a tendency to write his women a bit thinly, and actress Kim Chase is not given much to work with as Beatrice. Beatrice is Eddie’s long-suffering, shrewish wife, envious of the beautiful orphaned young niece who has supplanted her in her husband’s affections. One wonders about the parallels between Miller’s own discarded first wife of 16 years, Mary Grace Slattery. Mary Grace Slattery was Arthur Miller’s college sweetheart, encouraged his writing when he was completely unknown, gave him creative feedback and inspiration, raised their children, and sacrificed her own education to support him as a waitress and editor while he wrote. Miller wrote all of his most acclaimed works while he was with her. But Miller betrayed her and their family together for his all-consuming obsession with the dewy, orphaned, needy much younger Marilyn Monroe, who called him, fittingly with the incestuous theme in this play, “Papa Miller.”
Phenomenal actress Kim Chase works her own indelible magic on the rather unrewarding part of Beatrice. She is more than up to this challenge of transforming the thin part of a nagging, discarded wife into a bravura gem of vulnerability, strength, and yearning. She lands every line with truthfulness and scrappy life knowledge, a fierce, generous lovingness, and a deep, wounded vulnerability that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
In Kim Chase’s take on Beatrice, the unloved wife yearns for something more but settles for fighting for what she has — and still loses. Beatrice tries to protect and champion her niece, to help her escape from her husband’s clutches and the shrinking four walls of their tiny apartment world, while she is still, somehow, deeply in love with her monstrous husband. Kim Chase breaks free from the somewhat misogynistic, self-serving confines of Arthur Miller’s writing to create something conflicted and brilliant and all her own. What she does with this part is nothing less than a miracle.
Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge has a fascinating, lurid history that is a truly glorious, delicious mess to dive into. But putting all that aside, it is worth watching this entire play simply for Ray Abruzzo and Kim Chase alone. These are the kind of knockout, genius level performances that make live theatre truly meaningful and truly great.
A View from the Bridge runs 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm on Sundays through October 8, 2023. Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Tickets: $25 – $35 (Seniors/Students/Guild $5 off ticket price) and can be purchased in advance at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com or by calling (310) 397-3244. Running time approximately 2 hours with one intermission. Free parking available on site.