CultureJew: “A View from the Bridge” and “My Mother’s Brief Affair” Make for Good Theater Watching

It’s been bitter cold since the turn of the year, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in cozily warm theaters–legitimate theaters, that is. Thank you, TDF, for making it possible for ordinary people to enjoy theater without risking bankruptcy. Of course, I’m not going to see “Hamilton” anytime soon, but I can live with that. Eventually, it too will show up on TDF.

It’s Arthur Miller’s centennial so a lot of his plays have graced stages lately. After enjoying a marvelous Yiddish translation of “Death of a Salesman” a few months ago, I caught the Young Vic production of “A View from the Bridge” last week. Directed by Ivo van Hove, the “it” Dutch director, this was a huge hit in London and has received glowing reviews here as well. All deserved. Mark Strong is brilliant as longshoreman Eddie Carbone, giving a completely naturalistic and deeply moving performance with a perfect Brooklyn accent. His wife is played by Nicola Walker, and the two of them are perfectly in sync throughout the play. While the other actors are not as fine, the relationship between these two is the heart of the drama.

Van Hove has accentuated the classical tragic dimensions of the play, setting it in a large square space, empty except for the barefoot characters and a chair. When they step onto the stage, they are entering a gladiatorial pit or a boxing ring. It’s a fight to the death for Eddie and his unacknowledged desire for the teenage niece he’s raised; for him and his wife, who is increasingly frantic to thwart their relationship; and for the niece, who is battling with her own developing sexuality. Into the ring come two young men newly arrived from Italy, and with their arrival the ending seems predetermined. “A View from the Bridge” is not as good a play as “Death of a Salesman,” but this innovative production brings out all its power and pathos.  Van Hove is also doing “The Crucible” later this year, so we have more of his fascinating interpretation of Miller to look forward to.

A Long Island Jewish Mother

Richard Greenberg seems to have written his comic drama “My Mother’s Brief Affair” especially for Linda Lavin, and the seventy-something actress shows her appreciation by lapping up Greenberg’s archly witty dialogue with relish. Lavin plays Anna Cantor, a Long Island matron always on the verge of expiring, with the brittle humor and perfect comic timing she is known for. Unlike the mother she played in “The Lyons,” however, her last foray on Broadway, Anna is not entirely a witch. She is certainly judgmental, as she acknowledges freely, but she judges herself as harshly as she does her family.  Her son Seth (Greg Keller) comes to visit her in the hospital, where she starts to tell him a story about an affair she had many years ago with a well-known historical figure. I can’t say more than that because the name of the person is the shocking closer of the first act. No spoilers here.

Seth is incredulous that his very ordinary Jewish mother, who he describes as “warm-cold,” might have been carrying on with this man, and is even more shocked when he learns that his twin sister Abby (Kate Arrington) knew all about it.  The characters of the children are not as well developed or interesting as Anna’s, but the second-act revelations of Anna’s youth in Brooklyn are quite moving, and Lavin is always a pleasure to watch work. This Manhattan Theater Club production is directed by Lynne Meadow, who also directed Greenberg’s last play “The Assembled Parties,” another domestic drama about a New York Jewish family with secrets.

A Visit to Queens, New York

Jews play a role in Frederick Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights” too, although a fading one. Wiseman is the famous documentarian who makes cinema verite films about institutions–hospitals, universities, the juvenile court system, the army, ballet companies, and so on. He doesn’t like the term cinema verite, but it describes his films for most people: they are long, repetitive examinations with no narration or talking heads. The camera watches people go about their business and in that way builds a portrait of a place. Of course, there is always editorial choice and control in making any film, but in Wiseman’s films, those choices seem veiled.

“In Jackson Heights” focuses on the neighborhood in Queens that is home to an astonishing diversity of residents. People from countries in Central and Latin America jostle on the busy commercial streets with immigrants from the nations of South Asia. Latino transgender prostitutes try to get relief from harassment by Anglo cops, and genteel members of the Jackson Heights beautification society discuss gardening plans at a coffeehouse. For the most part, it’s a leisurely examination of a colorful and vibrant neighborhood, but Wiseman seems particularly interested in the threat of gentrification that he sees lurking in the establishment of a Business Improvement District or BID. For some reason, only Latino business owners appear on screen to express their dismay. What happened to the small business people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India? To make up, though, Wiseman includes a hilarious scene at a taxi-driving school, where the students are overwhelmingly from Asia.

The Jews represent the past here. In a few scenes, several elderly Jewish congregants sit in an almost empty synagogue at a Holocaust memorial service. In a longer scene at the beginning of the film, a group of elderly gay people meet in a Jewish community center to discuss plans for a permanent meeting place. Different people express opinions about maintaining easy access until one man reminds the group that if they find another space to meet, the community center may close and they will lose an institution that welcomed them for so many years.

“In Jackson Heights” had a short theatrical run, but it will probably show up on PBS soon. DVR it so you can watch it with several breaks in its three-hour length.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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