New Girls in Town

Two rarely staged comedies that are entertaining, but innocuous

Jul 13, 2005 at 4:00 am
For two very different kinds of mothers, life is about to change in a big way. Except for the fact that each has borne three children, Filumena Marturano and Alice Grey have little in common. Filumena is a smoldering Italian volcano; Alice is a well-bred Englishwoman. Yet the two rarely seen plays these women inhabit share surprisingly common motifs -- reunion, accountability, deception -- and each is as entertaining as it is slight.

Age before beauty.

Eduardo de Filippo's Filumena, which is being staged by HotCity Theatre, has never found success in the United States -- not when it debuted on Broadway in 1956 with the tempestuous Mexican actress Katy Jurado, not even in 1980 when Laurence Olivier directed it to showcase his wife Joan Plowright. Perhaps this is because American theatergoers tend to prefer their dramas serious and their comedies funny, and never the twain shall meet. Filumena is all over the place: romantic comedy, drama, farce, mystery. But if the enthusiastic audience response on opening night is to be believed, no one was bothered by the frequent changes in tone.

The plot concerns the eroding relationship between a 51-year-old Neapolitan ex-prostitute and the philandering lover with whom she has lived for the past quarter-century. Just before the action begins, Filumena has duped Domenico into marrying her on the specious premise that she is near death. (With Filumena out of the way, Domenico will be free to live openly with his 22-year-old mistress.) When Domenico discovers he's been had, he seeks to dissolve the marriage; now Filumena is forced to reveal compelling new reasons to justify their union.

Surely all this talk about hookers, cheaters and out-of-wedlock kids was racy stuff when the play premiered in Italy in 1946. But by now there's little here we haven't seen and heard time and again (as recently as in the family-friendly Mamma Mia!). So the evening's success depends upon execution rather than content. Happily, because de Filippo also was an actor, he knew how to write juicy roles, large and small.

As the bullying Domenico, Ted Gregory gives a broad-brushed pastiche of a performance -- here a dash of Dom DeLuise, there a fillip of Victor Buono. When all else fails, borrow from Jackie Gleason's blustering Ralph Kramden, who also feebly pretended to be the king of his castle. Most of the story's mood swings emanate from Domenico, and we never know where Gregory is going to take us next. His wild trajectory is both uproarious and unpredictable.

Peter Mayer creates another character to relish. As Domenico's loyal crony, Mayer is hidden under a curly white wig that makes him resemble Burt Reynolds in Striptease. Sometimes there's even a touch of Mark Twain. This foolish disguise has freed Mayer to be as loose as the proverbial goose, and he rises to the occasion with gusto. Mayer is well matched by Dorothy Davis as Filumena's loyal maid. With her incredulous wide eyes and pinched smile, her bony fingers clutching at rosary beads as if they were a lifeline to reality, this is Davis' best work in years. Julie Venegoni portrays the final member of the household, a saucy young maid who does her dusting with her décolletage -- which may be a French word rather than Italian, but the view is the same in any language.

Ultimately, though, we must confront the fact that the play is titled Filumena. In the title role, Donna M. Parrone conveys character through her mouth, her head and perhaps even her heart. But this performance does not erupt from her gut, and that's where Filumena has to live if the play is to matter. There's no visceral pain here, no urgency or lust for life. It's not enough for Parrone to react to Gregory's tirades. This is her play. She must seize it and control it. Because she does not, what was intended as a theatrical explosion instead trails off into a sort of whimper, and an otherwise enjoyable evening adds up to very little.

Alice Grey, the flirtatious heroine of J. M. Barrie's Alice Sit-by-the-Fire, is decades younger than Filumena, but the play is decades older, and the end result is pretty much the same. After having lived for several years in India, Alice (Janice Burns-Mantovani) and her stern husband, the Colonel (Chuck Lavazzi), have returned to England, where they expect to resume their roles as parents. But their kids, who remained behind, no longer know their parents; there is suspicion here, and estrangement. Young Cosmo (Hal Matthews) is still bristling over his name -- and who can blame him? The precocious Amy (Julia Kofkoff) has been brainwashed by too many theater matinees. Amy has come to believe that life is a play; if it's not, she'll make it one, complete with heroines, crises and last-minute rescues. All the neatly contrived confusions that occur here hinge on Amy's need to live in her imagination.

As a friend of the parents who is innocently drawn into Amy's fanciful web, Jacob Branch does a nice job of sustaining confusion. Although it has little to do with the play, the delightful scene in which he tries to treat his servant (Christine Brooks, who has the rubber-face makings of a true clown) as an equal is the one moment when the show is able to break through its own artifice. But for most of the evening, the performers in this ACT Inc. production might as well be carrying oil cans; their primary task is to lubricate a creaky script. These characters aren't characters at all; they're more akin to life-size marionettes who have been placed onstage to do their creator's bidding.

For those who like stiff-upper-lip comedies in which every third line is prefaced by "I say...," Alice provides a pleasant enough diversion for a hot summer night. (In fairness, it should be noted that -- unlike Filumena, which has never found wide acceptance in America -- Alice Sit-by-the-Fire has always been a surefire crowd-pleaser. This, despite the ever-grousing critics, who have never taken to it.)

Even at a trim two hours (which includes two intermissions), the action drags. Perhaps that's because the plot seems to be at odds with the staging. ACT Inc. insists on mounting its shows in the round, yet the plays they choose almost always were written for a proscenium. Now that the summer company has found a home in the Fontbonne University black-box theater, it would be so easy to eliminate that obtrusive and unnecessary single row of seats against the lobby wall and transform the playing space into a three-sided thrust.

While most local theaters are eager to produce the most popular titles, for 25 years ACT Inc. has sought less-familiar scripts, for which the group deserves great credit. But would it be heresy to suggest that it might be time to consider looking beyond obscure British drawing-room comedies? Obviously, this 100-year- old chestnut was chosen in order to piggyback onto the success of Finding Neverland, in which Johnny Depp portrays playwright Barrie. In the abstract, that makes sense. But lately too many ACT Inc. offerings have begun to look and sound forgettably alike. (Quick: What was the plot of last season's Diana of Dobson's?)

Ironically, HotCity's Filumena is the sort of play we might expect ACT Inc. to stage. It seems an unlikely choice for its venue. And at a time when the most frequent complaint heard in the local acting community is that the St. Louis Rep runs too closed a shop, nothing seems more closed than Filumena. When seemingly half the HotCity staff -- or their brothers or their cousins or their aunts -- is onstage, the result is suspiciously reminiscent of a vanity production. Let's hope HotCity gets past this amiable exercise in self-indulgence and once again focuses on the kind of immediate, provocative theater that, at its best, it does better than anyone in town.