You’d think Budd Schulberg might’ve been content to have won an Oscar for writing a classic of American cinema. On the Waterfront also earned Oscars for best picture, actor (Marlon Brando, of course), and director (Elia Kazan) in 1954. Schulberg and Kazan were both communists who became disillusioned and left the party; both appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named names. Rightly or wrongly, On the Waterfront has been widely read as their attempt to present their testimonies as acts not of cowardice but of courage.
Only Schulberg, who ingratiated himself deeply with Hoboken, N.J.’s dockworkers while researching his story, wasn’t satisfied that the celebrated film had been its ultimate expression. With co-writer Stan Silverman, he adapted it for Broadway in 1995, more than four decades after the film opened. He continued to tinker with it, producing several subsequent versions, right up until his 2009 death at the age of 95.
The one that Kathleen Akerley has directed for the American Century Theater has a couple of good things going for it, and they’re both wearing collars. Matt Dewberry plays Father Barry, the agitating young priest who tries to convince dockworkers to stand up to the thugs who’ve seized control of their union. This is much more Farther Barry’s story than the movie was; arguably, he’s the central character here rather than Terry Malloy, the bum who coulda been a contendah, etc. Bruce Alan Rauscher is intriguingly double cast as Father Vincent, Father Barry’s well-meaning but meek superior (who doesn’t appear in the film at all) and Johnny Friendly, the silver-tongued mobster who runs the rackets. Their performances have a drive and clarity that elevate a production in which the acting is otherwise uneven and the artier conceits—the dockworkers who enter the scene from under the stage like roaches; the one who wraps his own head in newspaper —meld awkwardly with the naturalistic goings-on. There’s also a reporter—perhaps a stand-in for Malcolm Johnson, whose Pulitzer-winning investigative series “Crime on the Waterfront” inspired Schulberg’s script—who sometimes addresses us directly but other times remains on stage as a silent-but-still-distracting observer.
Jack Powers has the unenviable duty of filling Brando’s checkerboard-patterned coat and heavy eye makeup as Terry, and he simply doesn’t have the charisma that Brando relied upon to make a character who’s passive for the majority of the tale interesting. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s boxy wooden set evokes the variety of environments required (docks, bars, offices, a rectory) well enough, but for the scenes of budding romance between Terry and Edie, the sister of the dockworker for whose death he is in part responsible, Powers and Caitlin Shea are positioned physically as far away from the audience as they can be while remaining on stage. Akerley should’ve looked out for us a little bit.