Sunday, February 4, 2018

152 (2017-2018): Review: IMPERFECT LOVE (seen January 31, 2018)

“Imperfect Play”

If you remember the 1998 movie Illuminata, coauthored by John Turturro—who also starred—and Brandon Cole, you’ll have an inkling of what to expect in Cole’s Imperfect Love, the play that actually inspired the film. I say an inkling because there are major differences in the movie and the play, in terms of plot, characters, locale, and even style.

Rodrigo Lopresti, Cristina Spina. Photo: Richard Termine.
Turturro, who earlier directed and starred in Cole’s film script for Mac (1992), which transforms Macbeth into a Sopranos-like tale of Mafia ambition, has maintained his interest in Imperfect Love over the years, as noted in the producers’ billing of “The Left Wing Ltd. in association with John Turturro.”
David O'Hare, Aidan Redmond, Cristina Spina, Ed Malone. Photo: Richard Termine.
Illuminata (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) sets the action in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, and indulges in comedic overkill; it also includes one of Christopher Walken’s trademark bizarro performances in the role of a critic. Imperfect Love, however, which calls itself “A Serious Romantic Comedy,” takes place in Rome in 1899, on the stage of the Teatro Argentina, a still-standing opera house.
Rodrigo Lespriti, Cristina Spina, Ed Malone, David O'Hare. Photo: Richard Termine.
Unlike the movie’s extensive cast list, it includes only five characters, the playwright Gabriele Torrisi (Rodrigo Lopresti), the star actress/manager Eleanora Della Rosa, the leading man Domenica (Aidan Redmond), and two Irish clowns, Marco (Ed Malone) and Beppo (David O’Hara). Two others, Pallone and his wife, Asters, the theatre’s owners, are often referred to but never appear.
Rodrigo Lespriti, Cristina Spini. Photo: Richard Termine.
Much has been made (including in the program) of Imperfect Love’s being inspired by the controversial romantic/artistic relationship of Gabriele D’Annunzio, one of the best-known Italian writers and public/political figures of his times, and the acting genius Eleanora Duse, whose revolutionary style bridged the florid, romantic dramas represented by D’Annunzio and the modern age. In the play, the latter is represented by what were then considered the radical plays of Henrik Ibsen (anachronistically referred to as “the great new writer”), who was writing for the “thinking class.”
Cristina Spina, Rodrigo Lespriti. Photo: Richard Termine.
Cole claims to have done extensive research on these persons; however, perhaps to have more artistic freedom in depicting them and their circumstances, he changes their last names, making the play a drame à clef.
David O'Hare, Aidan Redmond, Cristina Spina, Ed Malone, Rodrigo Lopresti. Photo: Richard Termine.
Even had Cole called them D’Annunzio and Duse, though, the play reflects their real identities in only the broadest fashion, offering just a few historical crumbs that those familiar with one or the other person might appreciate. For the most part, they’re rather generic—the sensitive, tormented writer and the temperamental, jealousy-wracked actress—who could as easily be called Gino and Maria.
Rodrigo Lopresti, Cristina Spina. Photo: Richard Termine.
The most significant historical facts, loosely employed, concern the playwright’s plans to provide his new play—unnamed but presumably La Città Morta—to French star Sarah Bernhardt. She, of course, was the period’s other most famous European actress. Cole’s Della Rosa is deeply resentful of Bernhardt, calling her “that French slut”; it's hard to reconcile such sniping, though, with descriptions of the lofty, ethereal Duse.
Ed Malone, David O'Hare, Cristina Spina. Photo: Richard Termine.
Act One of this two-act drama, which runs an overlong (for its contents) two hours or so, is set upstage of the set for a historical melodrama by Torrisi; we’re in the position of the upstage wall, looking at the empty auditorium of the multi-tiered opera house (painted on the backdrop), with only the backside of a downstage scenic piece between us and the artificial auditorium.
Ed Malone, David O'Hare. Photo: Richard Termine.
In Act Two, the arrangement has been reversed, and we’re now in the Argentina’s auditorium, in front of the scenic piece, which represents an old-fashioned but impressive set showing a large, Hellmouth-like stone sculpture, with downstage steps and platforming. The designer responsible for this rather elaborate scenic investiture—and the period-appropriate costumes—is Academy Award-winner Gianni Quaranta (A Room with a View), who also designed Illuminata.  

Imperfect Love’s principal action concerns the failure of Torrisi’s latest play, which opened to critical blasts the night before, and the insistence of Pallone and Asters that it be closed. The writer and his actors feel they can salvage the play if Della Rosa’s big monologue can be revised enough by that afternoon to get Pallone and Aster’s approval.

To show theatre’s collaborative nature, much of the time is taken up with either Della Rosa and Domenica, Beppo and Marcos, or Della Rosa and Torrisi engaged in spontaneously combusted scenarios that both express immediate circumstances but also have the potential to create dialogue that can be incorporated into Torrisi’s script. In other words, a few scenes can be seen as either natural outgrowths of the play's relationships or improvisational outbursts designed to lead to theatrical discoveries. Thus the play occasionally toys with the relationship between reality and theatre. This is likely a nod to the memories of Pirandello and Beckett, to whom Cole dedicates the play, saying that without their works “this play could not have been written.”

The action rambles along with very few of its attempts at humor hitting their mark. A lugubrious air hovers over the frequent, repetitive squabbling as each character comes to feel somehow betrayed. The actors worry about their futures if Torrisi leaves them to go to Paris; Della Rosa threatens Torrisi’s outmoded style by deciding to do Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; Della Rosa is enraged by Torrisi’s rumored abandoning her for Bernhardt, and so forth.

Too often the play seems to be spinning its wheels, with frequently plodding dialogue unrelieved by wit. Director Michael Di Jiacomo’s sluggish, unimaginative staging does little to illuminate the characters or themes, whatever those might be.
Ed Malone, Cristina Spina, David O'Hare. Photo: Richard Termine.
Spina, an Italian actress whose natural accent adds welcome color to her portrayal, isn’t especially convincing as a world-class theatrical star but she brings fine emotional intelligence and some needed fire to her role. Redmond is thoroughly acceptable as the dashing but vulnerable leading man, while the tall, skinny Malone and the shorter, stockier O’Hara as the Irish-accented clowns are good actors stymied by leaden material. As Torrisi, the whiny Lopresti lacks the charisma even a faux D’Annunzio should project.
Ed Malone, Aidan Redmond, Dave O'Hare. Photo: Richard Termine.
For a play that seeks to reflect the paradigm shift from extravagant 19th-century dramaturgy to the realistic, intellectually oriented methods of Ibsen and his ilk, Imperfect Love is too closely aligned with the former and insufficiently so with the latter. What results is, obviously, imperfect.


Connelly Theater
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through February 18