Monday, February 9, 2015

151 (2014-2015): Review of SNOW ORCHID (February 7, 2015)

 "The Bloom Is Off this Orchid"

Joe Pintauro’s SNOW ORCHID, now in revival at Theatre Row’s diminutive Lion Theatre, was originally staged at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT, in 1980. It made its New York debut two years later at the now vanished Circle Repertory Company with a cast led by Olympia Dukakis and the late Peter Boyle as husband and wife Filumena and Rocco Lazarra. Their gay older son, Sebb, was played by Robert Lupone (who also acted it at the O’Neill), and the other son by Ben Siegler. When revived at the Gate Theatre in Nottinghill, England, in 1993, the revisions included an additional character, Doogan, Sebbie’s boyfriend. The current New York revival reportedly has undergone further revisions, although no new characters are involved.
Stephen Plunkett, Angelina Fiordellisi. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Any changes that have been made, however, are not enough to save the play from its weaknesses, and the mediocrity of the Miranda Company’s production only makes things worse. SNOW ORCHID is a conventional, two-act, kitchen-sink melodrama about an Italian-American family in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood; it takes place in 1964, when the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up. The blowzy, middle-aged mother, Filumena (Angelina Fiordellisi), born and raised in her beloved Sicily, is reminiscent of Italian earth mothers like Serafina in Tennessee Williams’s THE ROSE TATTOO (and many other roles in the Anna Magnani mold). Her husband, Rocco, has the potentially volcanic emotional vibes of Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, a play whose smoldering atmosphere seems one likely inspiration for Pintauro’s effort.
From left: Stephen Plunkett, David McElwee, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Rocco (Robert Cuccioli) returns home from a lengthy stay in a mental institution after some sort of unexplained breakdown but finds that, no matter how he’s changed physically (he’s slimmed down and dresses nattily) or emotionally (thanks to “downers”), no one wants anything to do with him. That’s because he was an abusive husband and father; despite his sincere efforts to turn over a new leaf and rebuild his family ties, he's hated with unremitting vitriol by Sebbie (Stephen Plunkett), who can never forgive him for his former violence. We must accept this behavior at face value as it all happened in the past; the repentant Rocco, at least in Mr. Cuccioli’s reasonable and sympathetic persona, seems nothing like what we hear about him.
From left: Angelina Fiordellisi, Robert Cuccioli, David McElwee, Stephen Plunkett. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Sebbie (short for Sebastian, a saint famous as a pincushion for arrows) is his brother Blaise’s (David McElwee’s) rival for Filumena’s love (she admits to favoring Sebb); the Oedipally afflicted Sebbie, whose homosexuality is soon exposed, has an almost incestuous relationship with his mother; in a scene meant to shock, he gives his mother a deep “Hollywood kiss”; in another he exposes his genitals to his father (and us), cynically asking for a sexual favor. Filumena, meanwhile, is an agoraphobic who hasn’t been able to step out of her apartment for years; much of the play concerns Sebbie’s efforts to get her outside. She, too, rejects her husband, despite his earnest efforts to seek forgiveness. Why, given her neuroses, nastiness, and fading looks, Rocco wants her back so much is a question for wiser heads than mine.
Angelina Fiordellisi, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play tumbles along, exploiting the complex family relationships, but, despite occasional incendiary flare-ups, remains curiously flat and uninvolving, no matter how much happens on the surface. Much of this is owing to the bland direction of Valentina Fratti, who fails to incite the necessary atmosphere of operatic passion; she settles instead for too much low-energy conversation, draining the play of the pace, tension, and aggression it requires.  Scenes of great intimacy are approached with undue timidity: Sebbie and Filumena’s kiss is wimpy, and, when Rocco rubs Vick’s onto Filumena’s breast, he slips his hand down her slip only slightly yet worries about the medication hurting her nipples.
Stephen Plunkett, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. 
Ms. Fratti is also seriously hampered by Patrick Rizotti’s chintzy set. SNOW ORCHID, with its multiple interior locales in the Lazarra household, requires either a fully naturalistic home (like the two-story one in the 1982 production) to create the mundane world in which these people live, or some combination of realism and nonrealism. Instead, the cramped stage, a very poor venue for this particular play, contains an arrangement of tall white walls whose surfaces are covered by what seems translucent paper through which the wooden beams holding them together are intentionally visible.
Timothy Hassler, Robert Cuccioli, Stephen Plunkett. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The various wee rooms, with their necessarily minimal furniture, are indicated only by shifts in lighting (efficiently designed by Travis McHale) and it takes some time before it’s clear what each area represents. The confusion is only compounded by all the eavesdropping the play demands, when supposedly unseen people are standing right in the line of sight of those they’re overhearing. Moreover, one wall tilts awkwardly, and the whole structure seems ready to collapse at any minute. A low budget, of course, may be partly responsible; if so, why choose a play with such demanding physical requirements if your solution is going to be so inadequate?
Robert Cuccioli, Angelina Fiordellisi, David McElwee. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
As Filumena, Ms. Fiordellisi (artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theatre) uses a rich Sicilian accent that sometimes slips but she nonetheless manages to convey her character’s hot-blooded temperament, sometimes fiery, sometimes profane, sometimes pious (she’s a devotee of St. Anthony, whose statue is a major prop). She certainly looks the frumpy yet still sensual Sicilian mother-wife, especially as costumed by Brooke Cohen. However, Mr. Cuccioli, who has played Broadway musical leads, has the looks, bearing, and grooming of Emile de Becque in SOUTH PACIFIC. I almost choked when Sebbie called him “an ol’ man with his teeth fallin’ out.” Try as he may, and he tries valiantly, Mr. Cuccioli appears out of place in this working-class world. Neither Mr. McElwee (who looks too old for his high-school-age part) nor Mr. Plunkett can do much more than offer stereotypical characterizations, while Timothy Hassler, who appears late in the play as Doogan, isn’t around long enough to make an impression.

Orchids actually play a role in THE SNOW ORCHID, and bear a symbolic value, like the roses in Frank Gilroy’s THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, but Mr. Pintauro’s dramaturgical flower needs more nourishment than it gets here if it’s ever going to blossom. 

Lion Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 28