Beck in The Negotiator

How I Learned to Drive

Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1995

Copyright 1995 The Times Mirror Company

May 2, 1995, Tuesday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Part F; Page 1; Entertainment Desk
LENGTH: 773 words

THEATER REVIEW; Nothing New In Broadway Retelling Of Waterfront



In a way, the movie On the Waterfront is one of the great moral oddities of the cinema. Writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan met and bonded because they had been friendly witnesses for the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and both were subsequently ostracized by many in the artistic community. They wanted to collaborate on a film, and Schulberg came up with the perfect hero: retired boxer Terry Malloy, friendly witness for the Waterfront Crime Commission. As a lackey for mob boss Johnny Friendly, Terry is a self-confessed bum, but he becomes a hero in the longshoremen's fight against union corruption when he finds the courage to finger his evil associates.

In the film, Marlon Brando brought contained power, animal grace and purity to Malloy, making him seem clean even when doing Friendly's dirty work. Kazan wrote in his autobiography that he considered the film a "reply to the beating I'd taken," a reference to the many snubs he'd received since testifying in 1952. A new dramatic version of On the Waterfront opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway on Monday night. "Why?" is the question you might ask. The story is a moral primer, self-righteous, creaky and loaded with more Christian symbolism than The Grapes of Wrath and The Bad Lieutenant combined. It depicts a world where the good are clearly good, the redeemable clearly about to be redeemed, and the bad pretty terrible. In the turmoil of the era in which it was written, this was the kind of morally legible world that people wished and prayed for, and it is one that Schulberg and Kazan, using their considerable talents, willed into being.

This production is watched over by a large wooden crucifixion high above the stage. And if that weren't obvious enough, Kevin Conway plays Johnny Friendly (the Lee J. Cobb role) as a grand theatrical villain, minus only the swirling cape and mustache. His Friendly is an enjoyably slimy bully and petty tyrant whose voice fills with gravel when someone crosses him. It's a hammy performance, entertaining in a low way. He extends Cobb's suggestion of homosexuality into full-blown desire; when he recalls watching Terry fight, his writhing hands travel up and down the ex-boxer's body.

Reprising Brando's role, a thankless task at best, Ron Eldard acquits himself, even while stealing Brando's make-up technique to give himself the look of a boxer's squashed eyes. Of course he lacks young Brando's stature and physical grace, but then, who doesn't? His Terry is constantly looking over his shoulder, partly because he's watching his back, but he seems also to be seeking an answer from somebody, anybody.

Unfortunately, Eldard has almost no chemistry with his co-star, Penelope Ann Miller. In what is perhaps the worst acting in the show, Miller plays Edie, the sheltered convent student who opens Malloy's eyes to the possibility of his own soul and who shows Father Barry (David Morse) how to be an activist. The actress insists on delivering her most heated speeches (and they are virtually all heated) to the audience directly, even if the person she's talking to is standing right next to her, looking at her.

Director Adrian Hall came in only weeks before the opening after director Gordon Edelson resigned, and the actors still seem to be running wild. Showing the most control are Michael Harney as Terry's big brother Charlie and Morse as the baby-faced priest who smokes like a gangster. One is thankful for Morse's straightforward performance because there's a lot of him here -- adapted by Schulberg with Stan Silverman, the play begins and ends with Morse's monologue. But Father Barry is not an interesting character -- he's simply a person exhorting everyone to do the right thing all of the time and is a mouthpiece for some of Schulberg's most self-conscious writing.

Set designer Eugene Lee gives an aesthetic dignity to the gritty waterfront locations, and he reprises the film's motif of surrounding Malloy with bars to underline his entrapment in the dirty world of the docks. Peter Kaczorowski provides handsome, film noir-like chiaroscuro lighting.

Not content with the film's success, Schulberg also told the story of Terry Malloy in a novel as well. Now we have the play, a depressingly obvious affair. Can a TV series be far behind?

* Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th St., New York City. (800) 755-4000.

* At Sunday's matinee, Jerry Grayson, who plays one of Johnny Friendly's bodyguards, suffered an on-stage heart attack near the end of Act One. A press agent for the show says Grayson is fine and resting comfortably.

GRAPHIC: Photo, COLOR, Poster for the Broadway play.

LOAD-DATE: May 3, 1995



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