Roundabout Theatre at the Neil Simon
A stunning production of a deeply felt play, surely one of Miller’s best and one that has stood the test of time very well, thanks to Miller’s adept craftsmanship and even more to the perennial appeal of his perennial subject — indignation, or loss of dignity. Saeve indignitas it was called in another age: Savage indignity, and this play in certain fundamental ways is savage. It goes well below the veneer of civilization, contrasting the kind of law that gets codified in statute books and other, more primitive kinds of law that remain unwritten but are every bit as unavoidable, and telling, for the lives of people affected by them.
In this production Tony Danza is now playing the role of Eddie Carbone, played earlier by Anthony La Paglia. Danza got a standing ovation tonight, deservedly; in fact the audience rose en masse, finally, to applaud the entire cast. Danza is a little hoarse, and he needs to do something to prevent himself from losing his voice after only two or three weeks in the part. But he is utterly believable, and the incestuous feelings his character cannot master very plausibly do him in. The growing tension between Eddie and his wife Beatrice, strongly played by Caren Browning, becomes almost palpable. But there are other factors at work as well. The director Michael Mayer often brings out the aggravated issue of manliness; it is a fatal directorial flaw to play Rodolpho (Miller must have been thinking of La Boheme) as a patsy, and it is Eddie’s hopeless chauvinism that, early on, sets him on the trail of Rodolpho (and, thus, inescapably, of his elder brother Marco). It works like this: Eddie has to pretend to himself that it is his solemn duty to the memory of his dead sister-in-law, Catherine’s long-deceased mother, to save her (Catherine) from marrying someone who “just isn’t right.” The pretense is needed to cover his own inadmissible sexual feelings for Catherine, the younger overgrown girl who adores him, innocently throws herself at him, and suddenly realizes the horror of the situation.
This theme of manliness (we’ve seen it full-blown before in Salesman) is beautifully turned by Miller in the direction of indignation: it is an insult to Eddie himself that Rodolpho could come into his life, sponge off him for months, and then steal his one and only niece from him; an insult not to be born. Eddie strikes back, so lost is he to reason and self-control, by peaching on the two “submarines” to the immigration authorities. For this he becomes a pariah, and when Marco comes again, not to apologize for sullying Eddie’s good name, but to find fault with him, he calls him an animal. Just that. Eddie fights for his life, for his name. In an act of supreme irony, the physically stronger Marco turns Eddie’s drawn knife back on him and kills him. The death has some of the inevitability of genuine tragedy, and in this performance is deeply shocking and genuinely moving.
Then Alfieri, the commentator who is Miller’s bridge to the audience (as if we needed one), comes back on and spoils it, at least to some extent. Robert Lupone was not wonderful in this role; he is too “ethnic” and too shrill; he shouts at key points instead of being in deadly earnest sotto voce, as I think the role requires. Do we really need to have Eddie interpreted for us? How much does it help to have someone at the end tell us that doing things by half instead of completely is probably on the whole better? We know that most people settle for half, and that Eddie plainly couldn’t do that, without having to be explicitly told. I suppose Miller had in mind the putatively unbridgeable chasm separating the island of Manhattan (and its Broadway theaters) from the real life of Brooklyn and the waterfront. It suggests that Miller’s own belief in the primacy and sufficiency of his subject is accompanied by some anxiety on his part that the story might not be a viable one for an upper middle-class audience. So he has to enlist a figure who will be more on their wavelength. Tonight, when Alfieri welcomed the audience and explained in a warmly sardonic tone that he was a lawyer, there was a knowing laugh, a response in kind from the audience.
Maybe Miller was right after all. Michael Mayer tried to blend this Alfieri more invisibly into the Italian-American neighborhood that is the scene of the play, but Alfieri resists blending. He is sometimes played like a Greek seer whose local office is transparently doing service for a minor peak on Mount Olympus. That’s wrong too. In this production Alfieri smokes a cigar incessantly and, lo and behold, Eddie Carbone smokes cigars too. A nice try, but finally there is nothing that can overcome the ambivalent rhetoric implicit in Miller’s choice. Attention must finally be paid to Eddie Carbone, whether his lawyer philosophizes about him and mourns his loss, or not.