On the Waterfront, now through March 13, 2011 at San Jose Stage, is everything you could hope it to be. Based on the 1954 Academy Award winning movie starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Eva Marie Saint, the 2008 stage adaptation by the original screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, and Stan Silverman is loud and muscular, full of wise-cracking tough guys, a ruthless villain and a steely young woman, who can't believe the world her longshoreman father has been trying to shelter her from is so brutal and ugly, but refuses to be cowed.
The story of the coulda-been boxer who takes profitable falls for his brother and his brother's mobster boss, thus dashing the young pugilist's chances at being a contender, is the stuff of Hollywood legend. The film not only won eight Academy Awards (out of 12 nominations), it did so by getting the cast and crew out of the sound stage and onto the docks, into the bars and up on the rooftops of Hoboken. The events upon which the film was based actually took place in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but the film's naturalistic Jersey setting was close enough.
Back then, director Elia Kazan was after realism. Half a century later, playwright Budd Schulberg takes an impressionistic, at times even surreal, approach to his story. For example, wooden chairs fill in for everything from pigeon coops to crates of Irish whiskey to a coffin. Naturally they are also used as chairs, which the cast lifts and moves about in sweeping, almost balletic motions. Mime is used throughout.
At the heart of the story is the struggle raging inside Terry Malloy (passionately and energetically played by Johnny Moreno), a former fighter who gets cushy jobs on the docks thanks to his privileged relationship with mob boss Johnny Friendly (Randall King) and Terry's big brother, Charley (John Flanagan). Terry is gnawed from within by guilt, in part for the perks he receives from Friendly but mostly for the role he may have unwittingly played in his friend Joey Doyle's (Carl Holvick-Thomas) murder in the play's opening moments.
Terry hides his self doubts behind an ethos of self-preservation and street-smart self-interest to push down any internal questions about the propriety of his behavior, until, that is, he meets Edie Doyle (Summer Serafin), dead Joey's little sister. Edie's father, Pop, (Michael Moerman) has sent the young woman away to college so she won't have to witness his daily indignities down on the docks and the casual violence that took the life of his son. But Joey's death is a catalyst for Edie. A religious person, she challenges the local priest, Father Barry (Kalli Jonsson) to do more for his working class flock than to merely preach forgiveness and patience. She wants justice.
Of course, the brilliance of the film, as well as the play that has followed it all these years later, is that justice must come from Terry, the one least likely to dole it out. I thought Moreno did a great job of showing us his inner turmoil, and I liked watching his tentative affection for Edie evolve. As the only woman in a play dominated by men, Serafin probably would have stood out regardless of her performance, but she's very good here, and she imbues Edie with a toughness that proves a match for the wise guys.
On the Waterfront runs through March 13, 2011 at San Jose Stage. For tickets and information, visit thestage.org.
All photos by Dave Lepori.