Scarlett Johansson: Movie Star, Yes, But Credible Stage Actress?

As there's been a spate of ill-fated megastar-driven Broadway productions recently, one tends to be skeptical about any movie-to-stage transition actually succeeding. So imagine my surprise when I warily settled into Scarlett Johansson's B'way debut and totally didn't hate it.

See the world is broke, even Hollywood, which means there just aren't quite as many movie parts out there these days. So poor impoverished millionaire actors are forced to go find other work elsewhere to support their crippling mansion and houseboat and macro-organic-seaweed-flown-in-from-Japan-that-morning addictions.

Old Hollywood battleaxe Brooke Shields has taken to concocting magic, and potentially dangerous, eye potions. Luke Wilson, that lovable Pound Puppy from the early '00s, has sold any indie cred he had left and started shilling for a cell phone company, letting himself be rained on by pounds of red gumballs on national TV.

But most shameful of all are the actors who, with artsy smiles plastered on their faces by their managers, have packed their carpetbags and showed up in droves to embarrass themselves in the live theatre. Yes, the theatre! That place of weird old gay men who say curious words like "Terrence" and "Sheba" and "fifteen hundred dollars a week." Those haunted, creaking New York palaces where just-slightly-too-ugly-for-screen actresses have been making livings—actual decent, normal-people livings—for years and years now. It's a shock to the system to see these big-timers arrive, all shiny and glowing, at the doorstep of their sooty East Coast colleagues.

It is degrading, but it also can be good for an actor's 'cred', because theatre is still considered, despite its rapid decline in popularity over the last half-century (or maybe because of it?), the truest of the acting Art Forms. It's a place where movie stars like Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington can embarrass or humble themselves, and a place where true stage actors who just happen to also be movie stars like Cate Blanchett and Liev Schreiber can ascend to the ranks of acting luminaries. Basically you get what you put in usually, and oftentimes movie stars seem uncomfortable and unfocused and insecure on stage. The fact of their stardom can make them or us or everyone involved distracted and alienated, and so their noble (and needy) efforts frequently fall flat. Even a poised titan like Julianne Moore can be felled by the footlights.

So it was with great trepidation—because what has she really played ever?—that I went to see a preview (so this is not a formal review, I promz!) of Scarlett Johansson in Arthur Miller's slow-burning Red Hook melodrama A View from the Bridge last night. But you know what? Kid did perfectly fine. I'd sort of forgotten what a thin part Catherine, the object of an uncle's doomed lust, really is—mostly just bouncing off of other characters' more sturdy presences. Maybe it's the lightness of the role that allows Johansson to be perfectly pleasant, not awkwardly overheated or nerve-wrackingly jittery or (as is the case with too many movie actors — Leguizamo and Piven, I'm looking in your direction) weak on her lines. I know it's sad that "she knew her lines" constitutes praise for a movie star doing a play, but at this point it does.

The starlet seemed surprisingly at-home on stage, which is more than you can say for the likes of, oh, a Katie Holmes or something, who did her own Miller play two seasons ago. Plus she pulled off a mostly credible accent, which Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman failed to do with their mangled Chicago twangs in this fall's A Steady Rain. She didn't play up her sultry bustiness the way she's often forced to in movies by old hornball directors. If anything she's a bit retreated and passive, which is her most likable mode—warmly on display in movies like The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World.

The rest of the production is lived-in and satisfying, with the always-magnificent Schreiber playing the stewing Eddie and the daintily brilliant Jessica Hecht as his quietly wise wife. As is always the problem with Miller plays, everything's humming along just fine and then, at the very end of the show, you hear something whistling overhead and look up just in time to see the kitchen sink crashing down on the stage. While the production loses some tempo and urgency in those final, violent moments, it stands as, honestly, one of the better productions I've seen on Broadway so far this theatre-year. Most importantly, to us and the box office, Scarlett Johansson doesn't screw up once!

And, considering the last three words of her (admirably straight-and-to-the-point) Playbill bio are "Iron Man 2", I'd say that's accomplishment enough.

We'll have to see what kind of reviews she gets. Sadly, her performance might be overshadowed by the fact that, way back in 1997, the recently-late young actress Brittany Murphy played the same role on Broadway and, from what I hear, was pretty spectacular.