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A CurtainUp Review
The Time of the Cuckoo

Debra Monk, Oleg Krupa
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
In an age where stories about women defined as old maids may seem antiquated if not offensive, this season has brought us two of the best known of the genre. First to appear on the theatrical horizon was Richard Nash's The Rainmaker, a bittersweet fable about a shy depression era farm woman who is sexually awakened by a likeable con man. Now there's Arthur Laurents' more bitter than sweet 1952 play, The Time of the Cuckoo which preceded The Rainmaker by two years.

The appeal of these revivals rests on a three-legged stool of nostalgia:
  • One leg of the stool is a longing for more innocent times -- the depression era of The Rainmaker, and The Time of The Cuckoo's post war world in which American innocents abroad come face to face with Italians whose long-time social pragmatism has been exacerbated by World War II.
  • The second leg is a yearning for love and romance. Society may have relegated terms like old maid and spinster to the linguistic dust bin, but the sense of isolation and inability to connect prevails in the lives of the unattached. Old-fashioned as some of the attitudes expressed in a play written almost half a century ago may sound, the pain of the loveless and insecure still evokes a gut level emotional response.
  • The third leg is the yearning for the flavor of theater when it was a way of life -- a time when generously sized casts and the reliable well-made play structure were the norm.

The just opened Lincoln Center revival of Cuckoo delivers this triple dose of nostalgia with great style. The playwright's refusal to succumb to a Hollywood ending in which the redemptive power of love triumphs gives this vacation hotel variant of the drawing room comedy of manners a harder-edged more contemporary sensibility than The Rainmaker. However, with all the de-rigeur and by now somewhat stock secondary characters in place, it maintains a firm grip on its nostalgia credentials.

Debra Monk is a sturdy Leona Samish, the executive secretary who is nearing the end of a Venetian holiday that has not produced the hoped for encounter with the man of her dreams. She conveys the acute sense of loneliness lurking beneath the flow of often self-deprecating one-liners. Like the other Americans in the play she is torn between the pull of Mediterranean warmth and American prudishness and materialism. It's enough to drive her to drink a lot more gin that is good for her (the much used gin bottle being this play's smoking gun which will set off the inevitable emotional explosion).

Ms. Monk is neither as plain as the original Leona (Shirley Booth) or as overly grand as the celluloid version (Katherine Hepburn). If one had to compare her to any actresses of that period it would be Rosalind Russell or Eve Arden. Without her proper mid-calf length dresses and seamed stockings you could easily mistake her for the sort of modern career woman who, when an attractive Venetian man does materialize, would accept a casual relationship with the same ease as the pensione owner, Signora Fioria (played with just right world weariness by Cigdem Onat). Like Americans now, as then, Leona can only accept the Signora's statement that in Italy age is an asset with a jokey "In that case I'm loaded."

Olek Krupa's Renato DiRossi, the shopkeeper who sells Leona some Venetian glass goblets and picks up on her emotional neediness is not as too young and handsome as Rosanno Brazzi was in the film. He is definitely middle aged and disarmingly owns up to being poor and wearing a silk shirt borrowed from his brother. During Mr. Laurents' rather dark last act Renato becomes frustrated with Leona's distress about his wife and children and black market connections and abandons the inevitably short-lived romance by blaming his loss of feeling on her. The clay-footed, over-aged Romeo can't deal with a "complex" woman. The whole charming, postwar European flavor takes on a timely tinge of smart women making foolish choices.

Of the four other Americans at Pensione Fioria, Adam Trese and Ana Reeder whose work I've admired in several previous plays, continue to prove themselves as solid supporting players: he as an artist who sublimates his work frustration via a fling with the landlady; Reeder as his wife, who ends up putting passion before principle.

Tom Aldredge who last season managed to wrest maximum humor out of a minimal part in La Terrasse does it again as a standard issue disgruntled and disconcertingly tactless tourist on an overbooked packaged tour. When he refuses a drink it's because "this wop food has ruined my digestion." Polly Holliday brings a nice wistful note to the part of his wife. When she says that this first trip out of the USA isn't quite what she expected, she lays the groundwork for the scene in Act 2 when Leona says "I always thought when I fell in love I would hear a waltz" -- to which Signora Fioria's retorts "then you should have gone to Vienna." This waltz reference became the title for the play's musicalized version, Do I Hear a Waltz? (which co-incidentally had a recent revivel at the Georges Playhouse in New Jersey).

The actors playing the Italians are fine as the by now overly familiar types -- Chiara Mangiameli as a not too bright, over-sexed Italian maid who could have stepped right out of television's Fawlty Towers, Paolo Pagliacolo as Renato's son who loves all things American, and Sebastian Uriarte as the crafty urchin entrepreneur whose favorite expression is "okey-dokey."

Director Nicholas Martin demonstrates his usual deft touch for well integrated productions. Whether working on a one-person play like Fully Committed or one with larger cast like this one, his shows are notable for their tasteful design elements and Cuckoo is no exception. The Venetian garden by James Noone (who also designed the revival of The Rainmaker and Fully Committed)'s is exquisitely lit by Brian MacDevitt and makes you wish you could book lodgings in the Pensione Fioria. Theoni V. Aldredge has dressed everyone true to the period, with one yelllow print dress for Ana Reeder that could well harken a comeback of angel cap sleeves.

Like other revivals whose basic appeal is nostalgia, The Time of the Cuckoo, has a finite appeal best suited to this limited booking in the smaller Lincoln Center theater. It's lovely to look at, well acted and, unless you come expecting a middle-aged work to have an avant-garde bounce, makes for an enjoyable two hours.

Home of the Brave --an even earlier Laurents play recently revived
The Rainmaker which, like Cuckoo starred Katherine Hepburn in its film adaptation
Fully Committed

Written Arthur Laurents by
Directed by Nicholas Martin

With: Debra Monk, Tom Aldredge, Polly Holliday, Olek Krupa, Chiara Mangiameli, Cigdern Onat, Paolo Pagliacolo, Ana Reeder, Adam Trese
Set Design: James Noone
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt Costume Design: Theoni V. Aldredge
Sound/Music: Mark Bennett
Running time: 21/2 hours
2/27/2000-5/07/2000; opening 2/21/2000 Newhouse/Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., 239-6200
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/19 performance

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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