Broadway’s Strong Leading Man

Broadway’s Strong Leading Man

Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” (Jan Versweyveld)

English actor Mark Strong may just be giving the performance of his career in the Young Vic production of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” which opens Nov. 12 at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre for a limited engagement through Feb. 21, 2016.

There’s the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Actor to prove it. (The play, a hit in London’s West End, also took home an Olivier for Best Revival.) But that can work against this star, familiar to movie audiences from roles in “The Imitation Game,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and others. With his impressive physique, handsome features and, yes, bald head, he’s a commanding presence, articulate and intelligent (he started out with the intention of becoming a lawyer). No, accolades can can come with a price for the 52-year-old, who has returned to the stage after a 12-year absence.

“It’s slightly nerve-racking that we come from London having had such great reviews and having the awards because New Yorkers aren’t seeing it completely fresh: They’re seeing it with somebody else’s opinion telling them that it’s a great production,” he told me as he was getting ready to start rehearsals in New York for his Broadway debut. “I hope people can leave that at the door and accept it for what it is.”

And what this production of “A View From the Bridge,” as directed by Ivo van Hove (also making his Broadway debut), is “is the clearest, most brutal that anybody is ever likely to have seen,” according to Strong. For New York theatergoers that’s saying something because, since its premiere in 1955, “A View From the Bridge” has been revived on Broadway three times, most recently in 2010.

So, what makes this “View” different from its predecessors? Strong describes the plot as “essentially a tiny domestic incident.”

Set in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the play revolves around his character, Eddie Carbone, a married Italian-American longshoreman whose feelings for his niece, Catherine, who lives with Eddie and his wife, lead to tragedy.

The triangle in “A View From the Bridge”: Phoebe Fox as Catherine (the niece), Mark Strong as Eddie (the husband) and Nicola Walker as Beatrice (the wife). (©Jan Versweyveld)

What director van Hove has done is strip the play of a set and props. There is no Brooklyn Bridge looming in the background. And that has liberated the lead actor.

“Ivo isn’t too bothered, to be honest, about the exactitude of where the characters were from or how we spoke. That isn’t what he’s most interested in. For example, in our production when the Italian immigrants arrive, they don’t speak with Italian accents because he felt that that just took away from the story. [Audiences] suddenly notice actors being Italian rather than just listening to what the guys have to say. We never got bogged down in how like Brooklyn we can make this. It’s more about how can we deliver the story, the characters and the narrative in the most efficient way possible.”

With part of the audience sitting onstage right next to the actors, Strong describes the experience in visceral terms. For him, it’s like being in a “bear pit.” With no intermission, the play runs a fast hour and 50 minutes. “It’s a roller coaster ride from beginning to end,” he says. Once the curtain goes up, “there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. You can’t take your eyes off the thing, and you can’t stop hearing clearly the words that Arthur Miller wrote.” He goes even further: “With the white floor and the stark white lighting, it’s almost like a laboratory petri dish.”

I bring up the point that Strong, as English as English can be in speech and manner, was nonetheless born in Britain of an Italian father and an Austrian mother. Did the foreign “outsider” element in him help bring Eddie Carbone to life?

“I think it’s inevitable that I have that connection with Eddie in my DNA somewhere. With Eddie, I didn’t have to do an awful lot of mining. I just knew what I wanted to do with him. I have to say that finding that was partly, I think, the Italian element. But part of it was also Ivo’s insistence that we learn the lines before the first day of rehearsal. I turned up with a very clear idea of how I wanted Eddie to be, how I saw him and how I wanted to play him. It didn’t come about in rehearsal. I turned up with what I thought he should be because I had learned the whole play before I got there.”

Returning to live theater has invigorated Strong. “I’ve rediscovered the joy of acting,” he says. “Reconnecting with a live audience. Relearning about rhythms of speech and fundamental things like knowing when to leave a pause for a laugh, knowing when to leave a moment for the audience to understand what has happened. Connecting with other actors, too, and knowing that you’re part of an incredible team. You never really have that in the movies. Actors act for the camera rather than the actors they’re with. Also it’s so broken up and bitty, you can’t really get a run of anything.”

As to living in New York for several months, Strong puts it right up there with living in London, especially since his wife and sons are with him.

“I recently did a TV show that took me away from home for six months, and I was miserable. I said that if I’m ever to be away for another long period of time, they’re coming with me. We’re so excited. My boys were at the skate park this morning with their skateboards having a New York experience. It’s been a wonderful start so far. My wife and I love New York. I think London and New York are the two greatest cities in the world because there’s always something new happening, always something new to see. I live in London and know it, so New York for me is more exotic. We’re really looking forward to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Holidays that this city does like no other.”

And New York audiences are looking forward to Mark Strong and the Young Vic’s take on “A View From the Bridge,” which promises to also be like no other. “I’ve never done a play that people have wanted to talk about so much,” Strong says. Well, New Yorkers are never shy when it comes to speaking their minds. Previews began Oct. 21, and the buzz is building.

“A View From the Bridge,” Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th St., btw Sixth & Seventh aves., 212.239.6200, www.aviewfromthebridgebroadway.com