Arthur Miller’s ‘The Hook’ Gets Its First American Staging in Brooklyn

On a barge in Red Hook, Brooklyn, dockworkers chant against their corrupt union boss. “We’re striking this ship!” yells the group’s leader. Old barrels sit on the edge of a bare stage as it sways beneath the actors’ feet.

This is a scene from Brave New World Repertory Theater’s production of “The Hook,” the first American staging of an adapted Arthur Miller screenplay. The show, which opens at the Waterfront Museum on Friday, follows Marty, a longshoreman in 1950 who fights against the union corruption that controlled Red Hook’s waterfront. Miller based the screenplay on the life of Pete Panto, a local dockworker who was killed more than 80 years ago, presumably for standing up to the port bosses.

Now the show returns to the neighborhood in which it set, staged aboard a docked ship straight from Panto’s time.

“The location does 50 percent of the work for us,” said Claire Beckman, who directed the show and is the artistic director for Brave New World, which specializes in site-specific works.

“The Hook” went unproduced for decades. In the 1950s, Miller had teamed up with Elia Kazan to pitch it to Hollywood, but when studio executives demanded that the union bosses be communists, Miller scrapped the project. He repurposed his research to write the play “A View From the Bridge,” and Kazan revisited its themes to make “On the Waterfront,” both to critical acclaim.

It wasn’t until a British stage designer, Patrick Connellan, read about the screenplay in Miller’s autobiography that it was resurrected: Connellan approached James Dacre, a theater director he had collaborated with before, and Ron Hutchinson, a playwright, to stage its premiere at Royal & Derngate Theater in Britain in 2015.

Three years later, on a visit to New York, Connellan stopped in Red Hook to explore the story’s roots. He wandered into the Waterfront Museum’s barge and struck up a conversation with the barge’s owner, telling him about the screenplay.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do “The Hook” here, bring it home?’” Connellan said.

The ship’s owner, David Sharps, was thrilled. With its close ties to the neighborhood’s history, “The Hook” seemed particularly well-suited for the space. The barge also retains fixtures from Panto’s days: Patinated rigging blocks hang from the ceiling; a century-old bell clanks when the barge jerks.

Sharps enlisted Hutchinson and Brave New World — which had staged “A View From the Bridge” and “On the Waterfront” on the barge before — for a reading of “The Hook” in 2019. Now the full production, delayed because of Covid, brings the story to life. In an early scene, dockworkers haul crates onto the stage using the barge’s sling. A character uses one of the barge’s hatches for a convincing stunt.

The actors occasionally need to contend with the reality of performing on the water. “Every afternoon, somebody has to grab for a handhold because the boat gives a little sort of judder,” Hutchinson said. “It just informs the actors’ sense that everything was dangerous down in Red Hook.”

For the new production, Hutchinson and Beckman changed the 2015 play substantially. They cut characters, rearranged scenes and formed a new ending. The final script is pared down, running at about 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.

Despite the rework, “The Hook” aims to preserve Miller’s cinematic vision using music, projections of historical photographs and noir lighting. “Because it was originally conceived as a screenplay, not a production for the theater, I wanted to lean into the cinematic elements as much as possible,” Beckman said.

Her approach helps the play contend with some of the barge’s staging challenges. To work around a wooden beam that bisects the stage, the play switches between scenes on either side of the beam, allowing the production to splice together short bursts of action the way a movie would. And to compensate for the small cast, the actors often refer to the 90-person audience, seated on three sides of the stage, as fellow members of their union.

“It’s less breaking the fourth wall and more pulling them through the fourth wall,” said Paul Bomba, who plays Marty.

Rehearsing and performing in the barge has helped Bomba to step into the shoes of a 1950s longshoreman. “Just being in that environment informs how you move, the way you step, how you have to keep your balance,” he said. “All that physical stuff translates into characterization.”

Beckman hopes that the immersive production draws the audience into Red Hook’s history and spreads the story of Pete Panto’s fight against union greed. Primarily, she said, she wants to honor Panto’s memory.

“I do think that Panto has still not gotten his due,” Beckman said. “I wanted to create a tribute to Panto because I know that was Miller’s intention.”

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