I was in New York City this past weekend, with Ben, because it’s our annual tradition to pick the coldest weekend of the year to go tromping around a city in the Northeast surrounded on all sides by water.
(The windchill Saturday night got down to -28F. Sure I lived in Canada for a few years and generally like the cold, but that’s just ridiculous)
We ventured out in the midst of this arctic blast to see Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, and never was a venture into the cold so well rewarded as this one.
A View from the Bridge is a big story about a small family in mid-century Brooklyn. It’s about relationships and immigration and the economy and tradition. It’s very much about honor, or at least, about honor as it means to the Italian/Sicilian community in which it’s set.
But after two hours of absolutely captivating stage time, it was kind of hard to forget that it’s not a show all about Mark Strong’s hands.
It’s a minimalist production, performed almost in the round (there are seats on the stage itself). The set is comprised of a floor with a drain in it, edged on three sides with what looks like and occasionally functions as a bench. A door cut into a black wall serves as the exit and entrance point for the actors. It’s sparse and confining. The costumes are simple and vague as to time period. The actors are barefoot. The setting puts absolutely all of the focus on the story itself while removing everything that helps create the illusion that the story is real.
Eddie, as it becomes clear about thirty seconds into the play, is in love with his niece Catherine. How aware he is of those feelings — and how aware Catherine is of them, or of her feelings for Eddie — is left maddeningly and fascinatingly ambiguous throughout most of the play. Eddie is jealous of Catherine’s new job as a stenographer. He’s also wildly jealous and distrustful of Rodolfo, his wife’s cousin and an illegal immigrant who’s staying with the family, and who is courting Catherine. It’s not a story with any mystery to it — Alfieri, a lawyer from the community who serves as both narrator and chorus, tells the audience near the top of the play that Eddie’s story is a tragic one. And thanks both to the script and the staging, in those first thirty seconds it’s plainly apparent to the audience exactly what goes wrong and how.
And yet the story is anything but boring. Rather, tension builds, slowly at the beginning and then rapidly and unbearably toward the end and the inescapable conclusion. The minimalist setting removes anything that distracts the audience from the story unfolding on stage. It’s an intensely visceral, emotional story, and at the center of it all is Mark Strong’s Eddie Carbone. And, yes, his hands.
Now, Mark Strong is a big guy. If you met him in a dark alley, you might be a bit concerned. On stage, radiating guilt and anger and shame, he’s positively terrifying. And yet, he’s also shockingly gentle. He works with his hands, honest and necessary work. He kisses his wife, and dances with her. He brushes back the hair from his niece’s face in gestures that are somehow both sweet and, worrisomely, sensual.
The whole story of Eddie Carbone’s life — at least, all of his life that we get to see in the two hours we have with him on the stage — is told in his hands. The good, the bad, and the ultimately tragic and pointless.
And it’s that, the versatility of hands, that I find compelling, both on the stage and in the stories I read and write. On the subway ride back to the apartment where we were staying in Brooklyn — just blocks from where A View from the Bridge is set — Ben and I talked about the play. I struggled to put my feelings into words; emotions are always hard for me to express verbally, and the end of the play had hit me hard in a way I had no words for.
It wasn’t until Ben offered me his hand as we emerged from the subway station that I was finally able to make some sense of what I had just experienced. Hands are a point of connection, both for love and violence. They can be sexy or dangerous — or both at once. Their gestures force you — the audience, the listener — to pay attention to the words the speaker is saying; they also say what words can’t. In stories, and in life, they’re a vital part of how we communicate. The thought of hands in general, and the memory of Eddie’s in particular, are going to linger with me, I suspect, for rather a long time.