Review: 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' is beautifully scripted at N.J. premiere


By Patrick Maley
For NJ Advance Media

David Greenspan loves words. This was perhaps nowhere more clear than in his recent six-hour solo performance that meticulously delivered "Strange Interlude" with such precision that it seemed as though he had poured over every word with limitless care. The actor's adoration of language emerges again at Two River Theater in Red Bank, where he stars in a world-premiere production of his own stage adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," published in 1927.

Greenspan's version is efficient (75 minutes, not six hours), playful, and most of all dexterous with language. Lines are frequently in verse, and even the prose passages are vibrantly lyrical. It is a whimsical fairytale about big themes like love, longing, loss, and loneliness, but it is first a paean to the joys and powers of words.

Set in eighteenth-century Peru, Wilder's story finds grounding in the collapse of a flimsy Incan bridge and the death of the five travelers who plunged into the gorge below. Like the novel, Greenspan's adaptation opens by revealing the fact of five deaths on the compromised bridge, and then finds suspense by introducing more than a dozen characters without identifying which five are doomed. Greenspan plays Uncle Pio, a character with a relatively small storyline among the ensemble, but the adaptor also identifies himself to the audience as a stage director, frequently introducing characters, shifting the play's scenes, and offering narrative exposition. This nod to the dramatic structure of Wilder's "Our Town" is a sly and effective move by Greenspan both to make his adaptation more Wilderesque and also to manage the expanse of a novel within the confines of a short play.

Other than Uncle Pio, we also meet characters like Dona Maria (Mary Lou Rosato), a wealthy and lonely noble who drinks too much and misses her daughter, Dona Clara (Madeline Wise), who lives in Spain and greets every missive from her mother with an eye roll. There is Camila Perichole (Elizabeth Ramos), the beautiful actress who maintains affairs with bullfighters and politicians, and is the object of fiery longing from a peasant scribe Manuel (Bradley James Tejeda, El Coqui himself), whose twin brother Esteban (Zachary Infante) struggles to hide his resentment of Manuel's new devotion.

Greenspan's script impresses in its ability to introduce in such a short span these and other characters well enough that we come to know and care about each. This is of course key if we are going to worry about impending deaths, and pity the loss of life. Like most stage adaptation of novels, the show sacrifices some richness in its characterization and plotting, but Greenspan does well to divert attention from those necessary losses. The cast joins with director Ken Rus Schmoll to bring their characters effectively to full life. Schmoll returns to Two River after showing similar nuance in last season's "The Women of Padilla," another short, somber-sweet fairytale of a play.

Like "Padilla," "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is most interested with how tragedy effects the people who live on in its wake, but as told by Greenspan, Wilder's tale becomes at least as invested it its audience and the force of theatricality as it does in its characters. The five deaths happen intermittently over the course of the play rather than as some gruesome climax, and as stage director, Greenspan reveals each subsequent death with flippant matter-of-factness. The stage director says that the snapped bridge simply "flings the five gesticulating ants into the valley below," a line Greenspan borrows directly from Wilder, whose novel follows the determined efforts of a friar to make sense of the tragedy. Greenspan's adaptation shifts the burden of that investigation to the audience, if we are so inclined to take it up.

For the play is in part a spirited romp through the joy of a script full of slinky rhymes conjuring fanciful stories: an ode to the poetry of fairytale. But "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" also coyly invites consideration of how the space of theater so easily conjures and discards life. At the utterance of stage director, five lives end, a condition whose peculiarity lies at the heart of Greenspan's play.

Photo by T Charles Erickson