“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” is an old familiar tale of love and fate

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The full cast of
The full cast of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"

On July 20, 1714, a century-old Incan woven bridge in Peru, part of the road from Lima to Cuzco, collapses, sending the five people crossing the bridge to their deaths. A Playwright and his troupe of actors tell the stories of those five as well as how those who survived them fared after the tragedy. Toward the end of the play, the Playwright muses, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

"The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is at Two Rivers Theatre
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” is at Two Rivers Theatre

This, in brief, is the story of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by award-winning actor and playwright David Greenspan, now appearing at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank.

Wilder’s novel has never been out of print since its first appearance in 1927. Long considered one of the best American novels, Wilder himself felt that the book should not be adapted for the stage. That has not prevented three films, a play for puppets and actors, and an opera from being created. However, this latest version of the tale offers a mixed and slightly disappointing bag to its audiences.

David Grenspan in "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"
David Grenspan in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”

The novel poses the age-old question of accident versus predestination through the character of a monk investigating the bridge’s collapse. Greenspan’s play cuts out the monk, which avoids directly addressing the question. The lack of this tension between opposite points of view robs the play of a philosophical dimension that Wilder’s novel embraced. Greenspan the playwright also does a disservice to the play by indulging in displays of his own cleverness, writing many sections of the play in verse, and creating a just-too-long first scene, a funny but pointless flourish for Greenspan the actor’s character to show off.

Of the cast, the best performances were delivered by Mary Lou Rosato as Doña Maria, an elderly woman who, aware of her own ugliness, alienates her only daughter in her need for the affection denied her in her youth, and Steven Rattazzi, playing a variety of roles with ease and delight. The rest of the cast were ill-served by the script and the pedestrian direction of Ken Rus Schmoll.

"The Bridge of San Luis Rey" at Two Rivers Theatre
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” at Two Rivers Theatre

As for the Two River technical team, they have created a perfect environment for the play. Scenic designer Antje Ellermann has created a theatre of the period, where a deep apron projects from the proscenium arch, and the spaces on either side of the stage bring to mind on-stage box seats which allowed wealthy patrons of the arts to see and be seen. Coupled with the lighting and sound designs of Yuki Nakase and Karin Graybash, and the excellent costume designs of Elizabeth Hope Clancy, the show is a visual delight. An especially effective piece of stage magic involves the use of abruptly-dropping curtains.

Two River Theatre is to be commended on encouraging the creation of a stage version of one of the best-loved novels of the 20th century. However, one could wish they could have tightened and polished The Bridge of San Luis Rey to come up with a more satisfying production of the classic tale. While it does have its bright points, its moments of deep emotional resonance, and its marvelous scenic design, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is presented by Two River Theatre in Red Bank through March 18. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org.