Christopher Meloni
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Christopher Meloni
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Given the skepticism in Broadway circles when an actor best known for television and film work takes on one of the theater's most challenging roles, one can only imagine the initial response in Dublin, Ireland when it was announced that Christopher Meloni, famous for playing Detective Elliott Stabler on Law & Order: SVU and the bisexual murderer Chris Keller on HBO's Oz, would be starring as Eddie Carbone in the Gate Theatre's production of Arthur Miller's 1955 classic A View from the Bridge.

So it's doubly sweet that, as far as both audiences and critics are concerned, Meloni has triumphed in the part. According to Fintan O'Toole's glowing review in The Irish Times, "Meloni is the real thing -- a tremendously forceful presence with all the confidence that fame brings and none of the self indulgence." As for the audience response, "I've gotten standing ovations a couple of nights, which they don't usually do over here," the actor says. "Other nights, some people have stood up and others didn't, and I thought, 'Good for you.' In the States, you're thought of as a begrudger if you don't stand up." Meloni hadn't intended to read his reviews, "but all these people called me and started going crazy because they were so good, so I had to read them. You gotta find out what the hubbub is about. But it's the last time I'll do it -- I promise."

His stage sojourn, which will continue through September 30, is not part of some long-thought-out plan. In fact, the call to do the show came out of the blue; Meloni had never even met director Mark Brokaw (who's currently represented on Broadway by The Constant Wife). But it was an offer he couldn't refuse. "Of course," he says, "I knew that both Mark and The Gate had very strong reputations. And working with Mark has been great. He has the ability to nurture, to coax the best possible performance from you in a positive way." But it was really "the opportunity to be part of the repertoire of Arthur Miller" that convinced him to sign on. "In television, the writing has to come very quickly," he remarks. "But you know that Miller spent years writing and rewriting this play, so what's set down has truly been set in cement. That, to me, is very cool."

A View from the Bridge is about what happens when a rough-mannered Brooklyn longshoreman named Eddie Carbone develops an unhealthy attraction to his niece, Catherine, who lives with him and his wife, Beatrice. Catherine falls in love with an illegal immigrant named Rodolpho, causing Eddie to snap -- and tragedy ensues. Meloni, who is half-Italian and half-French Canadian, says that he was surprised to find similarities between the Carbone family and his own. "My grandfather was a doctor," he says, "but there was a certain Italian-ness to the way things are done and they way people interact with each other that I recognize from my family. I've incorporated that into the role."

The 44-year-old actor is too young to have seen the original Broadway production of A View From the Bridge, which starred Van Heflin as Eddie. For that matter, he has never seen any version of the play -- including the 1961 film with Raf Vallone, the short-lived 1983 Broadway revival with Tony LoBianco, and the celebrated 1997 Broadway revival with Anthony LaPaglia (who won a Tony Award for his performance). "It's been such a blessing to come into this fresh," Meloni comments. "I remember thinking many times about going to see Anthony do it, but I never did." (LaPaglia is scheduled to re-create his performance in an upcoming feature film version directed by Barry Levinson.)

How does Meloni perceive Eddie? "I think he's a man who's caught up in this particular circumstance, this particular junction in his life, where what he sees as his code of honor is tested by this passion that was previously unrevealed to him. He's definitely a product of his world; he's a little ignorant and he's unreflective. I think, today, we would use the catchphrase that he's living in denial. In the end, he's surviving the only way he can, even if it means betraying his family."

Cathy Belton and Christopher Meloniin A View from the Bridge
Cathy Belton and Christopher Meloni
in A View from the Bridge
As demanding as it is to play the hot-headed Stabler on Law & Order, Meloni says that Eddie has been a greater challenge: "My biggest worry is that my voice will hold up. Unfortunately, I have to talk during the day, since I am entertaining my children [Sophia, who's four, and Dante, who's 20 months] by doing things like Sponge Bob voices. This is our family's first trip to Ireland, and the thing I find most striking about the country is the weather. It's not just that it's unpredictable, but there truly seem to be spirits in the air. I now know where James Joyce and Bono get their ideas."

Meloni probably won't be seen on stage again until after Law & Order finishes shooting for the 2006-2007 season. "I need to rest," he explains, "but I will be sniffing around for parts when that time comes. I've done some readings for LAByrinth and some workshops for John Patrick Shanley; like every actor, I feel such a kinship to his words." He might even consider directing -- "but I'd really have to work on that nurturing part," he says with a laugh.

He will return to the Law & Order set shortly after returning to the U.S., and the transition back to Elliot will not be difficult. "I put the jacket on, strap the gun on the hip, and it's there," Meloni says. "After nearly seven years, it's almost Pavlovian." He's proud of the show even if it is usually overlooked at awards time. "We don't really get our due, but I think that's all right. It's good to keep us on edge. All I ever wanted to do is something good enough that I can hold my head up when I walk down the street -- and I actually did hundreds of pilots that, had they been picked up, I would've been hiding my face every time I went outside."