On the Waterfront is an undisputed classic of American cinema and a milestone on many levels—Marlon Brando’s intense method acting, Elia Kazan’s gritty direction and Budd Schulberg’s insightful screenwriting. Now that a play based on this giant of a film has opened, one might wonder, “What’s the point? Why not just order the real thing from Netflix?” Critics were asking much the same question in 1995, when Schulberg and collaborator Stan Silverman first adapted On the Waterfront for the stage. Though plagued by a series of setbacks, the production seemed ill advised to begin with—a lackluster imitation of a great movie. Thankfully, Schulberg and Silverman gave it another go. In 2008, a brand-new adaptation opened, this time to critical acclaim.

This version, directed by Kenneth Kelleher, is now being shown by San Jose Stage Company and is nothing short of extraordinary, at once faithful to and utterly different from the film. The cast, without exception, is fabulous. Johnny Moreno plays hero Terry Malloy, a dockworker who must decide whether to continue serving his corrupt union bosses or testify against them. He illuminates a timeless moral dilemma: Do you stand with your family, your friends, your society, even if you know they are wrong, or do you follow your own conscience? Moreno succeeds in making the character his own, and needn’t worry about standing in Marlon Brando’s shadow.

Many supporting characters have had their roles beefed up, allowing the actors room to shine. The stage belongs to crusading Father Barry (Kalli Jonsson) as much as it does to Malloy, and his big “crucifixion” speech is the most riveting part of the play. Summer Serafin is wonderful as Edie Doyle, Malloy’s love interest and sister of a man murdered by union goons, while Randall King was apparently born to play a psychotic crime lord.

Though the play retains some of the movie’s realism and even goes one-up where the earthy dialogue is concerned (you don’t hear words like “cocksucker” in the 1954 film), the overall tone is expressionist. Take, for example, the dancelike movements of the longshoremen as thugs are belting them, or a remarkable scene where the ensemble cast plays a flock of pigeons. The abstract set and cacophonous jazz music convey a sense of oppression, and vividly conjure up the dockyards, tenements and dingy bars that make up the waterfront world.

On the Waterfront
The Stage, San Jose
Through March 13