Snap to. It’s a high compliment to say that these two one-act plays, Wives and The Academy, made me feel as if I was standing at one end of a rope that I had just snapped, watching the vibration loop through to its surprising, inevitable conclusion, producing no sound at all, just the silence of a realization, like a joke with a serious punch line, if such things exist.
These plays by Mario Fratti, have the efficiency of well-crafted short stories. Like all successful art they are made up of particulars – a certain time, a certain place – but through these particulars they communicate universal truths. It can be no other way. Their central drama is the one most of us act out off-stage each day, the clash and negotiation between the sexes, one of this playwright’s favorite themes.
This world premiere of Wives features two actresses we have seen in Fratti plays before. This time, Carlotta Brentan is the more urbane character, while Giulia Businelli plays the innocent. Range is the heart of acting, and both actresses impress us with yet another aspect of their repertoires.
The entire play is a single conversation. Brentan (as Third), dressed expensively, holds the upper hand throughout the exchange that takes place in a plush Manhattan apartment. She is the divorced third wife of a man we never see. Businelli (as Fourth) is his new fiancé, clearly smitten, but intent on researching the man before she marries him, so that she “does not make another mistake.” The fact that she has already been married and divorced makes her innocence seem even more pronounced and appealing.
Like a schoolgirl on a mission, she has gone back to the source, or sources in this case – the three previous wives – to find out what she can. In the talk that ensues, the last of her three interactions, the two women reveal themselves and their attitudes toward life at the stages they find themselves. Throughout their conversation run the undercurrents of time and familiarity and experience that damage and shape us into the person we are at that moment. Then there’s that other contentious factor besides sex without which no work of Fratti’s would be complete – economics.
Economics is at the center of The Academy, and so is history. It is the postwar era in Italy (we are still in it). An enterprising professor played by Stephan Morrow who also directed both of these plays, has set up a school where young men can specialize in Italy’s newest industry: the American Woman.
The Academy is a cross between a university and a finishing school for gigolos run by the professor and his wife (Kate Rose Reynolds), the only woman on the stage. The play begins with the arrival of a Fortunato, a new applicant; the wife conducts the usual initial “interview” of the applicant out of our sight, to assess his suitability.
From there, the play is a series of strategies delivered knowingly by the professor. They are instructions for gaining the trust of the ladies and then expertly disarming them, lightening their bank accounts in the process. The collection of young men, ranged before their seats, resembles an animated line-up. Casting and direction has succeeded admirably in presenting us their unique personalities through gesture, attitude and minimal dialogue. Beginning with Afro (Michael Striano), the most vocal in the group, they are all infatuated and frustrated by the professor’s wife, who, like her husband provides psychosexual insights to guide their success, but nothing more.
History has brought the professor and his students to this moment in time. Their actions amount to as much revenge on history as they can manage.
Both of these plays are revenge plays. Check them out to see what I mean.
WIVES and THE ACADEMY
Written by Mario Fratti; directed by Stephan Morrow; lighting design, Alexander Bartenieff; set design, Mark Marcante.
At Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC; Box office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net. Runs through October 25, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM.