American Century Theater (ACT) is currently producing a powerful production of On the Waterfront – about the shenanigans of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the resultant corruption in the Big Apple. This production is adapted for the stage by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1954 film based on the same name, with Stan Silverman.
Usually a play moves from stage to screen, yet in this case, the exact opposite happened. A successful movie that won eight Academy Awards in 1954, including Best Picture and Actor (for Marlon Brando, who played Terry Malloy) took 40 years to finally make the transition to the stage. The movie’s storyline is extracted from the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning 24-part series in the New York Sun about corruption, extortion and racketeering on the New York and Brooklyn Waterfronts by Malcolm Johnson.
Terry Malloy (Jack Powers) has a life goal to be a prize fighter while running errands for Johnny Friendly, the corrupt boss of the ILA. After witnessing a murder, Terry feels responsible for his friend’s death after meeting and falling in love with the dead man’s sister, Edie (Caitlin Shea). Father Barry (Matt Dewberry) who is responsible for the particular parish where the events occur, plays an important role that significantly complicates the plot, and he attempts to convince Terry to provide credible evidence to the courts that will break up the control of the ILA by the mob.
From the get-go – within 5 minutes – we’re off and running as a murder occurs, which is just the beginning of more murderous mayhem yet to follow. Director Kathleen Akerley and her cast do a superb job of moving the show along. Once you’re hooked on the journey, the intricate web of deceit and lies are spun before your eyes, as you are lured into the plot’s twists and turns. The intensity continues building until the final curtain comes down 150 minutes later.
Although there are many scenes changes, Sound Designer Neil McFadden provides an ingenious musical script that is woven into those dark moments of prop changes. It keeps the tension high and your heart aflutter as you attempt to unravel what is being performed before your eyes.
Scenic Designer Elizabeth Jenkins captures the perfect picture of life on the waterfront by utilizing wooden planks almost like a boardwalk as her principle set. An upper deck is also employed as scenes from nearby homes are played out on the upper level as the play progresses.
The entire ensemble of twelves actors performs well together, but here are my favorites: As Terry Malloy, Jack Powers succeeds in ‘playing both sides’ – both supporting the crime syndicate and at the same time realizing the necessity to come clean. Christopher Herring (Charley Malloy, Terry’s brother) is the right hand of the crime syndicate boss and makes major recommendations to his superior for the mob’s survival. He commands the stage in the scenes with his brother as he attempts to simultaneously save his brother’s life as well as his own.
Bruce Alan Rauscher as Johnny Friendly, the head of the gangsters ILC monopolization, has the uncanny ability to portray what one might consider a ‘real life gangster of movie fame and fortune.’ His delivery of the line (which ends the first act), “We are all going to wear striped pajamas” was powerful and spine tingling. You BELIEVE that he is in control of the organization. His orders and directives are scripted so artfully that one is not only convinced by the words, but also by his facial expressions. Rauscher performs double-duty since he also plays the role of Father Vincent, the senior minister to our hero Father Barry and his performance is divine.
Matt Dewberry provides a convincing and heavenly portrayal of the local parishioner Father Barry, recently assigned to this New York district. Matt provides the impetus for Terry Malloy to turn State evidence on the racketeers. He’s assertive and his excuse for proceeding on his own without higher authority is authoritative when he states “can’t wait for the ecclesiastical red tape”.
Caitlin Shea provides a powerful performance as Edie Doyl, the emotionally distressed sister of the recently deceased Joey Doyl. She is put through the ’emotional wringer’ – losing her brother and possibly losing Terry, our hero, who comes to her emotional assistance.
I do wish that some of the blocking was more ‘audience friendly.’ There were several scenes in the play where serious dialogue was exchanged between characters. Instead of the characters sharing the stage at 45 degree angles, they were facing each other with one of the character’s back to the audience, and I really missed the facial and physical reactions of the actors during these scenes.
When you attend a performance of On the Waterfront, make sure to get your hands on Jack Marshall’s guide to the show. It’s interesting reading especially the chapter “On the Waterfront, Fact Emulates Fiction?” in the eleven page Audience Guide, which refers to the 2010 New Jersey Waterfront Commission’s Hearing on Mob Influence on the State’s Docks.
The guide is available at the box office when you pick up your tickets.
Do yourself a favor and participate in the anxiety, nail biting, and the ‘on the edge of your seat’ performances of On the Waterfront at American Century Theater.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.