ARLINGTON, Va., April 11, 2012 – The American Century Theater’s current production of Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront is a real moral and political eye-opener for contemporary audiences. And no, we’re not talking about the classic 1954 film of the same name, starring Marlon Brando and directed by Elia Kazan.
American Century’s live production of Waterfront was actually created by Schulberg, the movie’s original screenwriter, long after the film electrified audiences with its harsh, gritty portrayal of the everyday lives of a band of East coast, bottom-dog dockworkers. Schulberg, it’s said, had not been entirely happy with the way Kazan had adapted his script for the film and wanted to create a play that restored his own original intent.
Unfortunately for Schulberg, his play had only a brief, unsatisfactory run on Broadway in 1995. He went back to the proverbial drawing boards and revised it again circa 2001. It’s this version that director Kathleen Akerly chose to mount with American Century.
Schulberg, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, is one of those lost American writers who didn’t fall comfortably into the left-liberal narrative laid out for American writers throughout much of the 20th century. True, he started out on the correct path as a card-carrying Communist. But, when the Party pushed him to rewrite What Makes Sammy Run?—the no-holds-barred anti-Hollywood studio novel that originally won him fame—he reacted not only by quitting the Party. He also ended up testifying before Congress against rampant Communist influence in Hollywood. And, like director Elia Kazan, he actually named names.
In so doing, both men earned the undying enmity of the Hollywood left which gradually consigned them to a kind of historical no-man’s land where they mostly remain today.
In much the same way, the literary community gradually blacklisted the once reliably socialist writer John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s novels—notably his proletarian masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath—became prestigious films and his novels were frequently included in college English curricula. But Steinbeck surprised—and shocked—everyone when, seemingly out of the blue, he came out as a vocal supporter of Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War. These days, he’s disappeared from the literary curriculum almost entirely.
Schulberg, like Kazan, remained unrepentant, however, when it came to turning against the left. Schulberg never turned into a conservative (just as Steinbeck did not.) But since the 1940s, after his break with the Communists, he remained defiantly independent, having developed a healthy distaste for political, union, and even religious cronyism, all of which pop up in various ways, in the script he created for the stage version of On the Waterfront.
Most people, of course—including this writer—have been familiar only with the classic film version of Waterfront. As Kazan filmed the story, the film is a classic American tale of good vs. evil.
Good, in this case, is represented by Waterfront’s flawed hero, Terry Malloy, a rough palooka of a dockworker who nonetheless possesses a righteous moral core.
Evil, on the other hand, is embodied in the thuggish person of the ironically-named Johnny Friendly, the corrupt union boss of the local longshoremen who long-ago sold out to the mob—and in so doing has influenced (or paid off) both the cops and the local politicians to look the other way when he settles mob violence on recalcitrant union members.
Terry Malloy gets increasingly uncomfortable with Friendly when the boss uses him as an unsuspecting tool to set up a hit on his fellow worker and friend Joey Doyle. When Terry later falls in love with Doyle’s sister, Edie, he’s increasingly devoured by guilt and remorse over the secret part he played in his friend’s demise.
Enter an initially reluctant activist, parish priest, Father Barry. Urged by Edie to do something about the mob violence that took Joey away from her, he tries to draw media attention to the crookedness and violence on the waterfront while getting at least some of the longshoremen to stand up to Friendly.
Friendly’s eventual indictment for criminal activities sets Terry up as a key witness for the prosecution, eventually leading to the climactic waterfront brawl and Terry’s moral redemption.
“On the Waterfront” is a great film. But the play finds Schulberg back in his nihilistic, What Makes Sammy Run? mode. Kazan’s film, while realistic and gritty, still somehow manages a relatively happy ending in which virtue is ultimately rewarded. Schulberg’s play, however, takes a decidedly dimmer view of the American experience.
Schulberg’s stage version indicts the full spectrum of suspects, not just the mob-owned union thugs. Singled out as well are the complicit cops and pliant politicians who are happy to do what it takes to win large campaign contributions from the usual suspects—something that’s not much different even today as unions and corporate CEOs alike connive with willing politicians to engage in our current ruinous Russian Roulette game of crony capitalism.
Organized religion isn’t spared either in Schulberg’s stage play. Both Father Barry’s older and presumably wiser pastor and the Church hierarchy above them both are keenly aware of the mob’s and the politicians’ generous contributions to the Church coffers. They, too, don’t want Father Barry or anyone else rocking their monetary boat either.
Clearly, Schulberg’s world is a chilling box canyon of immorality from which there is no apparent escape. Although the film and the play are set in the early 1950s, they look eerily prescient when we realize how far down the hole our public and religious institutions have fallen in the last half century. And that’s the master-stroke of American Century’s timing. This seemingly old war horse of a play is still shockingly on target in 2012.
American Century’s production of Schulberg’s play is not lavish. It’s realistic, well-acted, and believably presented. With the exception of principal characters Terry Malloy (Jack Powers), his brother Charley (Christopher Herring), Edie Doyle (Caitlin Shea), and Father Barry (Matt Dewberry), the remainder of the ensemble cast undertakes numerous roles, with the same actors playing both good guys and bad guys interchangeably.
Optimally, American Century would have been able to field a larger cast, which would have made the play’s many characters easier for the audience to identify at the outset. But given today’s arts budget situation, that probably wasn’t possible. So platooning a smaller subset of actors was the best way to go.
To accomplish their rapid role changers, the ensemble players generally switched roles à la Spencer Tracy in his unique take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For his film portrayal of the dual role, he differentiated his identities without makeup or special effects but by means of facial changes and mannerisms alone.
In the main, the actors did a great job juggling their various roles believably, using Tracy-like facial expressions and slight alterations in dress to convey the switches. However, until audience members—including this reviewer—got the hang of what was going on, this juggling of parts proved a bit difficult when it came to telling the characters apart.
Fortunately, the principal characters were able to establish a strong core ensemble, and they were the ones who kept things going while the rest of us figured out just who was who.
As Terry Malloy, Jack Powers seemed exactly the right choice. Attractive, muscular, a complicated bundle of testosterone and honesty, Powers’ Malloy follows an uneasy trajectory as he tries to adapt his moral vision and physical strength and courage first to the old ways and, later, to the path of righteousness being urged on him by Edie and Father Barry.
Once a promising prize-fighter who’s career took a dive when he took one for Johnny Friendly, Terry’s already been betrayed once before by going along to get along, costing him a potentially lucrative career. Now he must choose whether he’ll continue to do so or will instead lead what appears to be a hopeless fight against the world to ensure tomorrow will be a better day for all. Powers grasps this intense personal dilemma and makes it his own, giving Terry Malloy a malleable yet ultimately strong moral character with whom the audience can strongly identify.
As Terry’s “good angel,” Edie Malloy, Caitlin Shea, while occasionally a bit shrill, has, perhaps, gives her character the clearest moral sense of anyone in this play. With her Baltimore Catechism lessons down pat, Shea’s Edie has never been in an environment where morality is relative and is not inclined to “go along” with anything that seems even slightly suspect. Thus, she’s the purest character in the play.
Shea embodies Edie’s almost naïve morality and honesty. Yet she imbues her character with greater complexity as Edie is forced to deal with and help shape Terry’s moral confusion, having never confronted moral relativism in her life before..
As Father Barry, Matt Dewberry is delightfully and effectively confused as well, beginning his waterfront adventure with a naiveté that’s arguably worse than Edie’s. But, gradually, as in the lives of many a saint, Father Barry manages to lurch toward becoming a righteous, fearless standard-bearer for truth and justice. Even so, both he and Terry eventually pay a price for their crusade in the world of Budd Schulberg who’s convinced that opposing amorality and evil will rarely bring success in this life.
In the smaller solo role of Charley, Terry’s older brother, Christopher Herring turns in a taut, conflicted performance. As Friendly’s right-hand thug, Charley has prospered by doing the boss’ bidding without question. But, perhaps feeling guilty about his brother’s abortive boxing career and his own role in Terry’s fall (Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contendah!” speech), he, too, tries to mend his past by carving out some middle ground. But his attempt proves decidedly unproductive. Herring catches the essence of Charley’s personal agony here, resulting in one of the better portrayals in this play.
A quick hat tip to ensemble player Graham Pilato. Even though he plays three roles, one of them is the key role of the “Reporter” who serves as narrator throughout the play, serving, perhaps, as Budd Schulberg’s doppelgänger and guiding us through the shady universe of the docks. Pilato is quite effective here and helps keep the proceedings on an even keel.
Aside from the initial character confusion—mostly a matter of budget, we suspect—American Century’s production of On the Waterfront is a real eye opener. Those who love the movie will be astonished as its variance from the play become apparent. Those not familiar with the film can enjoy the play in its own right as a gripping period piece whose lessons are not lost even today.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars.)
On the Waterfront will be performed at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center through April 28, 2012. For tickets and information, please visit American Century’s website.
Author’s note: Our reviews are running late this week due to some issues in the author’s extended family. We should be back on track, time-wise, around mid-April. We apologize for any inconvenience.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man, in Business.
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