David Greenspan’s stage adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” was originally conceived as a musical, and Greenspan wrote lyrics for potential songs. The lyrics were never put to music, but Greenspan used them, anyway, in the play that is now having its world premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.
This gives the dialogue of the play a pleasantly musical quality, and of course, it’s a pleasure to hear Wilder’s words, at times unedited, as in his famous closing line about how “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Greenspan and director Ken Rus Schmoll present the play on a set (designed by Antje Ellermann) that looks like an old theater, with luxurious curtains, a stage made from wooden boards, and wood scaffolding. Greenspan, playing a narrator (inspired by Wilder’s Stage Manager character in “Our Town”) in addition to the role of Uncle Pio, has a wonderfully warm and welcoming stage presence.
Yet the play, as a whole, felt flimsy to me: A series of interwoven stories that never cohered, dramatically. Wilder’s message about love was still beautiful, but didn’t seem to spring, naturally, from what had preceded it.
As in the novel, five people die when a bridge in Peru collapses in 1714. In the novel, a monk witnesses the event, and seeks to learn more about the five people. Were they just “gesticating ants,” to use Wilder’s memorable phrase, or was there some greater meaning to their lives? In the play, it’s Greenspan’s narrator who takes us on the journey of finding out more about their lives: their dreams, their compromises, their triumphs and failures, their tragedies.
I confess I haven’t read the novel: Maybe, in print, Wilder did a better job of weaving it all together. But I felt like I watched, in this play, random glimpses into the lives of people — the five who died, and those whose lives were intertwined with theirs, vividly portrayed by skilled actors such as Mary Lou Rosato (as a marquesa who is heartbreakingly estranged from her cold daughter) and Elizabeth Ramos (as a famous actress, trained by Greenspan’s Uncle Pio).
But as I saw it, five of these characters, including one who we learn virtually nothing about, simply had the bad luck to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, when the bridge collapsed. And then the narrator swoops back in to put a strained but lofty philosophical spin on it all. And so this “Bridge of San Luis Rey” seemed to me like a weak story, beautifully delivered.
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” will be at Two River Theater in Red Bank through March 18; visit tworivertheater.org.