Huntington Theatre Company, in residence at Boston University. Directed by Nicholas Martin
Starring Andrea Martin, petite firebrand and well-known comic actress, as Serafina delle Rose, this production makes a wholesome, fast-paced comedy out of Williams’s perhaps more pensive script. His intention was to write a comedy, of course, and it shines through. But the play’s predominant style, as realized in this production, of an enduring, heart-enhancing humanity somehow suits oddly with the presence of the crone (whose character name I did not catch) who lurks at the edges (downstage) of this production and says mostly indecipherable gnomic things that make us think we are in Williams country, all right, but somehow have found ourselves in the wrong block.
The play requires an actress of great warmth, soul, and naturalness, with a determined streak of obstinacy and able to convey the presence of deep, smoldering fires of love and longing. Andrea Martin is quite up to the job. Her vocal depths, unambiguously female and sexual, help to carry a fine, beautifully finished characterization that epitomizes the spirit of play and production. My companion observed that Williams was much more interested in the feelings of the women than the men, in their lives and their stories. No man in this woman’s world is up to the challenges of life, or so it seems — or the challenges of love, which is more to the point.
Least of all is this true of Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a down-at-heels banana truck driver who stumbles into town and runs across Serafina, with almost predictable results. He is played by Dominic Formosa as a great bundle of inept energy — truly the “husband’s body with a clown face” that Serafina pronounces him to be when she first sets eyes on him. My sense of the character, looking back afterwards, is that he serves as a comic catalyst to bring Serafina, widowed and grieving, and at the same time deeply angered by accusations that her husband was unfaithful to her during his lifetime (accusations that she fears are true), back to the land of the living. There are, it would seem, two viable ways to play Alvaro: as a somewhat grotesque but palpable knight in shining armor, an unwitting rescuer whose natural nobility and redolent romantic sexuality shine through, despite his uncoordinated body; or the way Nicholas Martin has played him, as a very unidealized, almost farcical presence, very funny and endearing to the audience but with no romantic aura at all, just good for laughs.
In fact, now that I come to realize it, this directorial choice is central to the larger decision about the style and tone of the play as a whole. As Alvaro goes, so goes the play. Martin chose in favor of the unromantic, non-symbolic Alvaro, and the result is a wonderful, crisp, fast-paced comedy that looks a lot like a truly superior sit-com, with no pretensions to being anything more. The shallowness of that choice is given away by the presence, in the script and on stage, of the crone, who has wandered in off the set of Streetcar, where she was busy selling “Flores para los muertos,” and has encountered a world in which she is alien and utterly out of place.
I wondered as I sat and enjoyed the good things — and there are many — of this production, why I had a curious feeling of dissatisfaction with it all, why I felt that this expert bit of nostalgia for a long-gone Louisiana seacoast town of Sicilians in the 1940s was a marvelously lively but ultimately forgettable approach to Williams’s expertly written script. I was yearning for something else, something more, something “symbolic” as only Williams, with his magical gift for showing us the wounded but valiant spirit of humanity, especially female humanity, can provide.
And I think how tenuous and short-lived is the felicity that Williams’s determination to write a comedy has conferred on this odd, ungainly community in which the women lead separate, somewhat communal lives, are privy to one another’s houses where they may enter unannounced, and share their emotional lives in uncomplicated (mostly) ways, but where the men are uncomprehending dolts or cads. The doctor says to the priest, “You love these people, but you don’t understand them.” Alvaro, in this sorry company, is a gem, rough and uncut. What you make of this man, who can cry like a woman and who feels bad about himself for doing it, in large measure determines what kind of play you end up with.