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Stage Door: A View From the Bridge, Present Laughter

03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A View From the Bridge is a revelation. The cast is roundly superb, while the staging at the Cort Theater is economical and heartbreaking. The revival of Arthur Miller's 1955 story about Eddie Carbone, a Brooklyn longshoreman (Liev Schreiber), his neglected wife Beatrice (Jessica Hecht) and her comely 17-year-old niece Catherine (an extraordinary Scarlett Johansson), underscores Miller's expertise as a poet of thwarted desire and crushed dreams.

Eddie, who longs for Catherine, is caught between forbidden desires and jealousy. Monosyllabic, prideful and brooding, Schreiber's Eddie grunts and growls with inchoate rage; the actor inhabits the totality of his character from the moment he steps on stage.

In his clean, but shabby home, he lives with his sexually rejected wife, a knowing Bea, beautifully rendered by Hecht. She is, above all, a realist -- both about her niece's ability to escape her dreary surroundings and her husband's lust. But it's Johansson who is the big surprise here. Usually cast in sexy roles, she displays real acting chops -- her walk, her accent, her vulnerability is pitch perfect.

Miller, who posits a Greek tragedy within these claustrophobic walls, introduces a narrator. The attorney Alfieri (Michael Cristofer) is familiar with working-class woes. He can advise Eddie on legal matters; he cannot quiet the eruptions in his heart. Two Italian immigrants unwittingly seal his fate. Smuggled into the country to work, Rodolpho (Morgan Spector) is enamored of all things American. Does he truly love Catherine or is she his ticket to citizenship? Is he "not right," as Eddie insists, slurring his manhood, or does Rodolpho embrace a joy of life Eddie can never possess?

Director Gregory Mosher has mined Miller's play for its layered sadness and dashed hopes. Set designer John Lee Beatty never lets us see beyond the dingy Red Hook neighborhood. Our view, like Eddie's, is confined. But each performance reiterates the power of Miller's unadorned prose, the pain of the poor and the pleasure of watching actors at the top of their game.

Some 16 years earlier, Noel Coward wrote Present Laughter, a drawing room comedy that posited the lead, Garry Essendine, a suave actor fearful of aging and drowning in attention, as a humorous parody of himself. Set in a breathtaking art deco London flat created by Alexander Dodge, a production standout, it's now at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater.

The play has a sprightly cast, ably headed by Victor Garber as Essendine. He's a long-time Broadway leading man who, much like his ensemble, including wife Liz (Lisa Banes), a sassy secretary (the always-enjoyable Harriet Harris), the predatory Joanna (Pamela Jane Gray), love-struck Morris (Marc Vietor), producer Henry (Richard Poe) and crazed fan (Brooks Ashmanskas), delivers the goods. There are ample laughs and the tart humor Coward revels in.

But unlike last year's revival of Blithe Spirit, which was sharp and lively, Present Laughter drags. That's no fault of the cast, which weaves its way through Essendine's silly affairs and affected moods with boundless energy. The play, a send-up of actors' pretensions, doesn't have the social insights of a Design for Living or Blithe Spirit. It's costumed with care, but it hasn't aged well. In the end, Present Laughter is a period soufflé that never quite rises.