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Theatre in Review: Imperfect Love (The Left Wing/Connelly Theater)

Rodrigo Lopresti, Cristina Spina. Photo: Richard Termine.

Whatever else one might say about Imperfect Love, it looks like a billion lire, thanks to the scenery and costumes by Gianni Quaranta, whose film production design credits include Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon; Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900; and James Ivory's A Room with a View (for which he won an Oscar), along with works by Lina Wertmüller and Paul Schrader, among others. One hardly expects to be in such august company at a theatre in Alphabet City, but somebody persuaded the designer, whose Aida remains in the Metropolitan Opera's repertory, to take a flyer on Off Off Broadway. Imperfect Love is set inside the Teatro Argentina in Rome, and Quaranta's Act I set offers a view, from the stage, of the magnificent red-and-gold auditorium. In Act II, we see the set of the theatre's current production; it is, apparently, a drama of the medieval era, staged on a castle parapet that is dominated by an enormous gargoyle head with a mouth large enough for a man to pass through. The designer also dresses his leading lady most attractively in turn-of-the-last-century style, combining tailored blouses with voluminous skirts; the men's suits receive the same detailed attention, and some of the supporting players are beautifully fitted out in doublets and hose suitable for the play-within-the-play. It is surely the splashiest entertainment ever to grace the stage of the Connelly Theater.

We never find out the name or the plot of the new production at the Teatro Argentina, but it is giving acid indigestion to everyone onstage. As Imperfect Love begins, it is the morning after opening night, the reviews are in, and the cast is painfully aware that, for all their labors, they have produced a large serving of turkey tetrazzini. Leading lady Eleonora Della Rosa (a fictionalized version of Eleonora Duse) feels betrayed by the playwright, who is also her lover, Gabriele Torrisi (a stand-in for Gabriele D'Annunzio, Duse's real-life personal and professional partner). The conversation is filled with recriminations about the inadequate (to Della Rosa) first-act finale, the relative talents of Sarah Bernhardt ("the French slut," in Della Rosa's words), and the grim possibility that time is leaving Della Rosa, Torrisi, and company behind; the word from the theatre's unseen producers is that they intend to replace their current flop with A Doll's House, by that upstart from Norway, Henrik Ibsen. Making matters worse, there's a rumor going around that Torrisi is secretly corresponding with Bernhardt about having her appear in his next play -- a plan that could prove devastating to Della Rosa.

It's ironic that Imperfect Love is about the attempt to fix a broken play, because the characters are trapped in a script so flaccid and uninvolving as to be beyond repair. It's a marathon talkfest; Della Rosa, Torrisi, and the others should be fighting for their artistic lives, but instead, they're drowning in a flood of trivial conversation. A little wit would help, but most of playwright Brandon Cole's dialogue reads like a foreign film with badly translated subtitles:

Torrisi: I'm not to read reviews of my play?

Della Rosa: How can you when they destroyed me?

Torrisi: Is it my fault the critics hated my play and you in it? (Della Rosa hesitates.) I asked you if it's my fault the critics hated my play.

Della Rosa: I heard what you said. I'm not deaf, you know.

Torrisi: You're not what?

Della Rosa: Deaf! Deaf!

Torrisi: So you're not deaf. So what?

After two hours of this, an Ibsen production would be catnip -- even a revival of Peer Gynt.

For two interminable acts, Della Rosa and Torrisi snipe at each other, with Domenica, the play's leading man, also weighing in, along with Marco and Beppo, a pair of clowns who are worried about their employment prospects. ("Ibsen writes no parts for clowns," they are told.) The script intimates that Torrisi may be ill, a plot point that is raised only to be dropped. ("It was nothing," he snaps. "Playwrights cough! Even Ibsen!") Domenica complains about the script, saying, "There are too many words and they lack force." He knows of what he speaks, based on some of the dialogue he is given to say. There is so much hand-wringing about the first-act finale that you could play a drinking game, taking a sip every time someone says "Rosa's monologue" -- and you'd be half in the bag by the curtain call. In any case, the plot hinges on the notion that a small adjustment to the script could transform a disaster into a smash hit.

Basically, we are asked to care about the fate of the play within the play, about which we don't know the first thing; in addition, we are expected to feel for characters who do little more than talk about themselves at exhaustive length. (In real life, D'Annunzio alienated Duse by writing a play for Bernhardt; in Cole's hands, this plot point is a big nothing, a mere contrivance designed to fill out the show to two full acts.) There are occasional hints that we are seeing a theatrical era in transition -- that the world of romantic melodrama popularized by Della Rosa and Torrisi is giving way to the cold realism of Ibsen -- but don't you believe it; this is just another backstage drama, one notably lacking in humor, dramatic tension, and compelling characters.

Under the direction of Michael Di Jiacomo, the actors consistently opt for the most superficial line reading possible; they have a peerless way of reducing even the most fraught conversation to the level of small talk. At times, the casting doesn't even make sense: When the young and pretty Cristina Spina, as Della Rosa, announces that she has been acting for thirty-six years, one immediately wonders if she made her debut in utero. The other production elements, including Jon DeGaetano's pleasing lighting design and the playlist of vintage Italian song recordings assembled by the sound designer, Bennett Golden, are top-notch. But Imperfect Love suffers from a bad case of the blah-blah-blahs. Will they fix the play? Will the show go on? Does anyone care? -- David Barbour

(5 February 2018)

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