In another collaboration with Richard Lambert’s the New Phoenix Theatre, Kurt Schneiderman’s Subversive Theatre Collective has returned with another installment of the “Workers’ Power Play Series.”
These are stories of the struggles, aspirations and triumphs of working people, this time a melodramatic stage adaptation of the iconic 1954 film, “On the Waterfront,” a tale of union corruption, extortion, racketeering and other misdeeds on the docks of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The late Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay but wasn’t entirely pleased with it; he wrote a second version for the stage in 1995.
Schulberg’s retelling of this grim, violent, testosterone and goon-filled peek at daily life on the docks, where a guy “could get pushed around or sometimes off,” has a ’50s look, feel and pace to it. Its characters – Big Mac, Runty, Truck, Skins, Mutt – are hackneyed, and the Good Guys and the Bad Guys are easily identified, cheered and hissed.
Director Kurt Schneiderman, skilled at maneuvering these mob scenes, literally, in and out of small quarters, does so again here, reconfiguring the host New Phoenix acting space into a series of steps and tiers. Workers and their despicable bosses cross paths frequently on a minimalist set by Michael Lodick, a bedroom here, a church rectory there, a court venue, the docks. Crates of various sizes prove versatile. It’s often creaky, but it works. Except for the finest of gangster garb, the night is essentially colorless.
“On the Waterfront” is all about love, loyalty and conscience, about doing the right thing. Would-be boxer Terry Malloy is a gofer for untouchable union boss Michael J. Skelly, aka Johnny Friendly. He has taken a dive or two for money. Unwittingly, Terry plays a part in setting up friend Joey Doyle’s “accidental” death. Joey, it seems, had been talking too much about the lack of worker input, kickbacks and general labor abuses. Boss Friendly ruled with an iron fist. If you don’t live by the “D&D” rule – that’s deaf and dumb – and you complain, you might be soon swimming with the fishes.
Joey’s sister Edie seeks the truth from Terry about the event and enlists Father Barry, an assistant at the local parish. He wades into new and dangerous territory, drawing the wrath of his superiors and eventually winning the confidence of Terry, who whistle-blows to investigators.
A cast of stalwarts makes this play work. Victor Morales excels as Johnny Friendly; there is no one better than this fine actor in these tough-guy roles. He’s joined by a parade of Subversive-New Phoenix veterans, attuned to these rough-edged stories: able actors such as Carlton Franklin, Leon Copeland and John Kennedy, and a pair of polished pros, Jack Agugliaro and Gary Darling. New Phoenix chief Richard Lambert has marvelous minutes as Father Barry, Andrea Andolina is a sweet Edie, and newcomer Matthew Nerber is a gangling Terry, not looking the part. But his portrayal as the unlikely hero, the catalyst for change, is believable and strong at the right times.
Director Schneiderman makes great use of an old theatrical device, the “tableau vivant,” live action captured and kept for an instant, then resumed. It’s very effective here, inspired, portraitlike, with key lighting work by Chris Cavanagh.
“On the Waterfront” can take its rightful place in the Worker’s series, alongside “Waiting for Lefty,” “Mother Jones” and the many labor-related plays of Manny Fried.