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|A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Our attention was drawn to this "romantic farce" because of its unusual history. Written as a play in 1984, it hasn't managed a production until now. In the intervening years, the playwright's frequent collaborator, John Turturro, adapted and directed it as a film, Illuminata, in which he, among a raft of other well-known actors, star.
Before you rush out to the video store to rent it, however, you might want to know that the play is the better of the two versions. ("Version" is actually a misnomer; the film is quite a different animal, only loosely inspired by the play.) What started as an enjoyable, tightly-focused romp on stage somehow became an unwieldy bore on the screen. Perhaps the original story is too "small" for the big screen, but it fits quite nicely, thank you, on the mainstage at Tribeca's New York Performance Works, a space that has just been nicely renovated, with comfortable new seats and all.
Imperfect Love is set in Rome in 1899. It's a historically-based "backstage" play, and is of interest for us theater-goers for that reason as well. It seems odd now that we refer to Ibsen as the father of modern theater, but in fin de siècle Italy, he was the bee's knees. Gabrielle Torrisi (Christopher McCann) was not. He was a playwright of the old school. Worse yet, he was losing his playwriting voice.
We meet Gabrielle the morning after the opening night of his new play. It was a fiasco, most particularly because a critical speech of his star, Eleanora Della Rosa (Leslie Lyles) -- also his lover -- fell flat. The theater owners want to throw in the towel and commence a production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, starring Eleanora and her co-star, Domenica (John Gould Rubin). She intervenes with the owners, who agree to give Gabrielle one more chance.
The character of Eleanora is based on the real Italian actress, Eleanora Duse, whose love affair with the playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio caused her to refuse to perform in anyone else's plays. Although her name is not so well known today, she was one of the great actresses of her day. Here's how Shaw, as a critic in The Saturday Review, compared her to Sarah Bernhardt:
"It is a rarity of the gigantic energy needed to sustain this work which makes Duse so exceptional; for the work is in her case highly intellectual work, and so requires energy of a quality altogether superior to the mere head of steam needed to produce Berhardtian explosions with the requisite regularity. With such high energy, mere personal fascination becomes a thing which the actress can put off and on like a garment. Sarah Bernhardt has nothing but her own charm.... Duse's own private charm has not yet been given to the public. She gives you ... the charm, in short, belonging to the character she impersonates....Our Eleanora has a briefer description of the attention-stealing Sarah. She calls her a slut.
Gabrielle's company begins the seemingly impossible task of improving the play overnight: Eleanora, out of love; Domenica, because he is loyal; and the two clowns that round out the cast, Beppo (Peter Dinklage) and Marco (Ed Hodson), because, well, there are no parts for clowns in Ibsen. But when Beppo produces a letter from Sarah to Gabrielle suggesting he is about to abandon Eleanora in Rome for Sarah in Paris, all hell breaks loose. But this is billed as a romantic farce, so a happy resolution obviously lurks. It's one you'll enjoy a lot more if I leave it to your imagination. Just remember that art imitates life but that life also imitates art. "
Brandon Cole has lovingly staged his own work here, and has assembled an accomplished cast that seems imbued with an Italian essence without excessive spicing. The characters are steeped in an exaggerated 19th Century style that spills over into their ordinary behavior. Lyles has captured this quite well, giving Della Rosa's speech an elongated quality in which each seemingly important word seems unwilling to end, but still able to find the person within when she shifts gears with lines like, "Give me Ibsen and sausage, I am ready". Both McCann and Rubin likewise find both the high drama and the low farce that are the play's chemistry. The clowns of Dinklage and Hodson are amusing as well as endearing, showing signs of having been aptly tethered by the director to keep them from running away with the show.
All of the design elements here are exceedingly nice, from the elaborate stairs and arches of the Romanesque stage, to the evocative costumes (both street and stage), apt lighting and thoroughly appropriate (but uncredited) Italian music.
It may be true, as the Roman theater owner informs Gabrielle, that "someone dies at the end of all great theater," but, as we also learn, "much that people say is not true, especially in theaters like this one."