Arthur Miller liked to walk. Picture it. Flush from the 1947 acclaim of his first Broadway hit, "All My Sons," the young Depression-raised playwright would wander the streets of lower New York to shake off what he later called "the guilt of success." Naturally, he was also searching for his next play.
I love how history happens. At 4:30 on winter mornings, he would stand around with Brooklyn longshoremen in Red Hook, soaking up the tension between the mob and the union guys. In "Timebends," his 1987 autobiography, he talked about "tuning my ear to their fruity, mangled Sicilian-English bravura, with its secretive, marvelously modulated hints and untrammeled emotions." A dockworker told him about a Brooklyn longshoreman who ratted to the Immigration Bureau on two brothers "who were living illegally in his very home, in order to break an engagement between one of them and his niece."
The story didn't mean much to Miller, at least not then. He started sketching it as a play called "An Italian Tragedy," but abandoned it to write two masterworks of the American theater - "Death of a Salesman," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, and, in 1953, "The Crucible," his witch-hunt parable of the blacklist.
It wasn't until 1955 that he turned the immigration anecdote into "A View From the Bridge," which played as a one act on a Broadway double bill improbably starring Van Heflin, the son of an Oklahoma dentist, as the passionate Italian dockworker. Miller (newly distracted by future wife Marilyn Monroe and the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee) did introduce Heflin to people in Red Hook. Miller, who died at 89 in 2005, remembered that the actor "studied their speech like a foreign language, which was unfortunately how it sounded on his tongue."
So much for deep background on "A View From the Bridge," in previews at the Cort Theatre for a Jan. 24 opening. This is the revised full-length version, which stars Liev Schreiber as longshoreman Eddie Carbone and Scarlett Johansson in her Broadway debut as Catherine, the 17-year-old niece who has lived with him and her aunt (Jessica Hecht) for most of her life.
Schreiber, of course, is a theater veteran who won a 2005 Tony Award for his shark of a real estate salesman in a revival of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." Johansson made her Off-Broadway debut at age 8 in "Sophistry" at Playwrights Horizons, but her daring movie career suggests that this will be an adventure.
The revival is the brainchild of Gregory Mosher, who, coincidentally, used to direct - brilliantly - all of Mamet's premieres, including the original "Glengarry." Mosher, who was director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the formative '70s and ran Lincoln Center Theater for part of the '80s, has not staged a production on Broadway since the intelligent, almost overly refined 1992 "A Streetcar Named Desire," starring Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.
Mosher, director of the Columbia University Arts Initiative, has said he picked "View" because he admires "its directness. I admire its emotional power."
There is undeniable power in the play, a muscle-bound folk tragedy that combines the quality of a Greek tragedy with the sort of oversized slice-of-life realism that Italians call verismo. It has a Greek chorus in the person of an immigration lawyer/narrator, who talks about destiny's "bloody course." Not surprisingly, William Bolcom turned the play into an opera in 1999.
The version we'll be seeing is the one Miller expanded from the original into a full-length play for Peter Brook to direct in London in 1957. Casting Brits as Brooklyn Italians was apparently also a bit of a hoot. Miller has said he didn't really understand what he had written until he saw an unknown actor named Robert Duvall play Eddie Off-Broadway in 1965. Another newcomer named Jon Voight played Rodolpho, the immigrant in love with Catherine.
Miller wrote about "an adenoidal young assistant stage manager," an awkward fellow with "a big nose that never seemed to get unstuffed." The director, Ulu Grosbard, told an incredulous Miller that the kid should play Willy Loman someday. He turned out to be Dustin Hoffman, who, in 1990, was nominated for a Tony for his Willy in "Death of a Salesman."
"View" was revived in 1983 with Tony Lo Bianco and again in 1997, when Anthony LaPaglia played Eddie with a magnificent, doomed decency. He was replaced later in the run by Tony Danza who - don't laugh - wasn't half bad.
In the middle of the last century, Miller marveled that the docks were "like an isolated village ruled by a feudal lord, within sight of the traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and the vaulting skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. . . . I had my entry at last into what had become for me a dangerous and mysterious world at the water's edge that drama and literature had never touched."
And then, through his "View," they did.
WHEN | WHERE Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., $42.50-$126.50; 212-239-6200; aviewfromthebridgeonbroadway.com.