Albert Innaurato's "Passione," which put in a boisterous appearance at the Morosco Tuesday evening, is a yard sale of a play. This is less a comment on the littered South Philadelphia tenement flat that is the comedy's setting than on the clutter of characters, dialogue and situations by means of which it lurches its way through two acts. And in spite of its title and liberal doses of a Tito Schipa recording of that name, there is not a trace of genuinely passionate feeling throughout its length.
The comedy, which was presented Off Off Broadway last spring under the direction of its author, has been considerably tightened, given clearer definition (including a new and pleasingly apt finish) and superior staging by the actor Frank Langella, making a promising debut as a director. But while these fresh components help, they cannot rescue a serio-comic work that is wholly synthetic. At those moments, and there are a few, when the evening raises our expectations, the work seems bent on bursting into song. But "Passione" is an opera buffa without a score.
The play takes place on a Sunday when it is the turn of Berto, the eldest offspring, to entertain the family patriarch, Oreste, who is confined to a home for the aged the rest of the week. On these occasions, all members of this Catholic Italian-American tribe assemble. But on this particular Sunday, Berto's ex-wife Aggy, a Southern Protestant who deserted her spouse 10 years earlier, arrives with her friend Sarah after a drive north in a truck.
Ostensibly having stopped by to recover certain belongings, she has really shown up to make certain that she did the right thing 10 years ago. One might suppose she had, since she has earned a medical degree in the intervening years and achieved the middle-class status that was her girlhood dream. But that would be reckoning without the charms of a noisy, excessively demonstrative, screwball household in which unbridled emotion, old Tommy Dorsey and operatic recordings, loose talk, looser behavior, and endless pots of coffee all somehow mingle to form the word "love."
To bolster his spurious magic act, Innaurato has invested each of his characters with one or more peculiarities. Berto, played with a nice mixture of sincerity and helplessness by the squat Jerry Stiller, has no real occupation other than the invention of useless articles, including a soap powder labeled with the Italian word for "surf."
Renzo, the funniest of the lot, and played by Dick Latessa like a rooster with a mild case of sciatica, is Berto's bookie, an occasional after-hours warehouse thief, and father of Berto's (and Aggy's) daughter-in-law Francine, an obese and foul-mouthed young woman who revels in her fatness in a long aria near the end of the first act. Francine and her husband Little Tom, who has twice attempted suicide since his mother's departure 10 years before, have no employment other than appearing as members, Fat Lady and Clown, of a Philadelphia street circus.
Aggy's friend Sarah, a feisty woman with a broad hillbilly dialect and a missing finger, is a pig farmer who likes to earn the act of love by first fighting with a mate, in this case the insatiable Renzo. That leaves the old man, Oreste, who is the butt of several jokes, including a supposed heart attack.
In like manner, Innaurato has thrust his strange collection of characters into a number of situations, visual gags and exchanges of dialogue (Renzo, speaking of his fat daughter: "The first time I took her into the playground, she broke the swing; all of them") that begin to take on the aspect of a doomed TV pilot that is an uneasy mix of farce, comedy and pathos. There's even a pie-in-the-face (well, cream puff, anyway) scene. And so much more.
In addition to those already mentioned, the performances range from the serviceable (by Angela Paton as the ex-wife, Daniel Keyes as the old man) to the outlandish (Laurel Cronin as the fat Francine, Sloane Shelton as the combative pig farmer) to the valiant (Richard Zavaglia in the unconvincing and practically unplayable role of the son). Langella has contributed several nice touches to the broad comedy scenes. Gropman's three-room set is a proper horror, in which William Ivey Long's costumes seem perfectly in place. Paul Gallo's lighting is admirable throughout.
"Passione" is two hours of fake exuberance and phony emotion.
Imagine a Puccini opera with the music filletted out and the libretto totally rewritten by some crazy Italian cousin of Feydeau; set the entire thing in the contemporary miasma of south Philadelphia's Italian district and you might have some slight impression of Albert Innaurato's new moderately funny and immoderately chaotic play Passione, which opened last night at the Morosco Theater. There again, you might now.
Passione seems the ideal title for almost any Innaurato play - for the man writes with passion, at times with a passion almost dislocated from life. Almost everyone in New York will remember, if only through the courtesy of its still ubiquitous TV commercial, the mother in Innaurato's earlier and still current Broadway hit, Gemini, pleading with her son "to take human bites."
In Passione, the playwright does indeed seem to be trying to take human bites, not always with success, but in a very serious fashion. Oddly enough, the man's lack of dramatic order runs against his greatest strength, which is the portrayal of human disorder.
In his earliest plays, this disorder was often seen through the prism of the perverse. In Passione, possibly his most mature work to date, Innaurato advances in the track he first set for himself in Gemini in presenting a verismo view of his dramatic preoccupations, and trying to offer us a slice of life almost if it were a slice of melon.
Nothing too much happens in most of Innaurato's plays. There is no particular story through which characters journey in some voyage of discovery, changing through the events. Innaurato's characters discover themselves in incidents - incidents that hold up sudden mirrors to their souls.
In Passione a Southern-born wife breaks in upon a family gathering honoring her Italian-American husband's aged father. She has deserted the family for 10 years during which time she acquired a medical degree, and now in the company of her sister, she unexpectedly comes back to her husband and now-adult, married son, to see what kind of reconciliation can be made.
Innaurato seems fascinated by the two issues of racism and obesity. Here the play is centered around what Innaurato apparently perceives as the natural antagonism between Protestant and Catholic cultures. The message is spelled out when one character says: "You're a Wop in a WASP society - that is a bad mistake." And as for obesity, remember Innaurato's tragic dramatic diatribe on fatness, Benno Blimpie here Francine, the son's wife, concludes the first act with a passionate, even poetic, aria for the fat.
These characters are drawn so much larger than life that they possibly should be watched through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. What remains then is Innaurato's abundant energy and his frequently compelling sense of the ridiculous.
Life spills over everywhere, and with probably Frank Langella's main task to stop it spilling too far. In his Broadway directorial debut, Langella has succeeded in containing a lot of the chaos, while still maintaining all of the life.
The actors suffer from Innaurato's present inability to delineate between a character and a stereotype, and Jerry Stiller as the slob-husband is something of a victim here. He does extremely well in a character more justly judged in terms of cartoon than portrait.
The same is true of most of the other members of this seething Philadelphia household. However, I liked the puzzled sincerity of Angela Paton as the wife. Indeed, the entire cast gave this Philadelphia carnivale the right atmosphere of pleasure and regret. In all, Innaurato seems to be advancing, but on a somewhat narrow front.
The official setting of Albert Innaurato's new comedy, "Passione," is an Italian-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia. But don't you believe it. This play's true geographical coordinates can be located only in the imagination of its author, who is one of the most brilliant iconoclasts of the American theater. In "Passione," as in "Gemini" and "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie," Mr. Innaurato plays lip service to kitchen-sink realism, but, for him, reality is merely an elastic means to a cockeyed end. This man is an artist, not a documentarian. He is driven - compulsively, breathlessly - to remake a familiar, even clichéd world into a new and often hilarious place of his own startling design.
"Passione," which opened at the Morosco last night, is far from a total success, but its first act is vintage Innaurato. It is there that we find the playwright's feverish sensibility twisting a seemingly commonplace ethnic family into all sorts of bizarre shapes. Grandpa (Daniel Keyes) may look like a typical patriarch in his dapper white suit - but, no, he's also a one-time arsonist. His son, Berto (Jerry Stiller), may come on like an unemployed cab driver, but he is also a failed inventor with a closet full of dashed dreams. Berto's son, Little Tom (Richard Zavaglia), is a polite fellow who also happens to be a circus clown. Little Tom's wife, Francine (Laurel Cronin), is the circus's producer - and also its fat lady.
These characters alone would be enough to keep any normal writer busy for a while, but Mr. Innaurato rarely rests. On the raucous afternoon when "Passione" unfolds, Berto is also paid a surprise visit by his ex-wife, Aggy (Angela Paton), who had walked out a decade before. She brings along her sister, Sarah (Sloane Shelton), a good ole Southern farm woman who likes to wave around her maimed left hand. Sarah soon catches the lascivious eye of fat Francine's hoody father, Renzo (Dick Latessa), a self-described "investment broker who don't use the stock market."
When this extended family gets to eating and bickering in Act I, the surprises and funny lines come so fast that we quickly accept the psychological reality of the characters, however far-fetched or grotesque they might otherwise seem. The playwright tries to get away with everything, and he often succeeds. One moment his antagonists draw knives and guns on each other; a little later they pair off and sway romantically to an old Tommy Dorsey record. Mr. Innaurato also thinks nothing of halting the action entirely for impassioned debates about such tangential subjects as women's liberation, television commercials and coffee percolators. These digressions are so passionately and wittily set forth that at times Mr. Innaurato could almost pass for South Philly's half-crazed, proletarian answer to Shaw.
Still, for all his kamikaze humor, the playwright never condescends to his losers and misfits. He truly likes them, and his infectious compassion is what keeps his fantastic conceits on a human scale. Unfortunately, Mr. Innaurato's big heart is also the source of his greatest esthetic failing. When, in Act II, he tries to resolve the homely specifics of the family's dilemmas, he simply cannot find a way to assimilate such prosaic matters into his high-flying, operatic comic style. "Passione" soon devolves into an ordinary domestic drama - one that sits very uneasily on what has come before.
Disappointingly enough, much of Act II consists of heart-to-heart conversations in which the characters confront one another, rehash the past and make amends. Suddenly the relatively minor character of Little Tom is launching into dramatically unearned monologues about his suicide attempts. Suddenly Aggy and Berto are recapping their marital history in somber words that merely repeat information that had been conveyed comically earlier on. Sarah and Renzo's final confrontation works better because it springs from the play's farcical underpinnings: they consummate their relationship in a wild, if overextended, slapstick boxing match.
Mr. Innaurato had a parallel difficulty in "Gemini," whose serious love triangle was at odds with the play's more outrageous shenanigans, but he finessed it better there. The introspective interludes were more adeptly interwoven, and the central plot question was left unresolved. In "Passione," the playwright seems, if anything, overly possessed by his generous emotions. He is too eager to reconcile his play's family, no matter what the price in narrative credibility, and he is too quick to have his characters endorse his own credo of tolerance. When a mother's attitude toward her son changes from rage to affection in an instant, the patness of such a transformation saps its pathos. Some lines of dialogue - "When you love somebody, you got to let them be what they are" - state the play's theme rather than dramatize it.
The production, which marks Frank Langella's debut as a director, is quite good. Working with roughly the same cast that originated the play in a broader version at Playwrights Horizons last spring, Mr. Langella has firmly rooted the action in Innaurato territory - that risky border area between naturalism and surrealism. He also has a valuable ally in David Gropman, a neo-realist set designer who has created a ramshackle apartment where even the dust seems in an advanced state of decay.
The actors fare according to their material. Mr. Stiller, Miss Paton and Mr. Zavaglia must strain a bit to keep up with their more flamboyant peers, though they all have their moments. (Mr. Stiller really does look like a man who purports to have shrunk with failure.) As sister Sarah, Miss Sloane is an endlessly wacky mixture of "decent Christian" homilies and brawny bitchiness. Her suitor, Mr. Latessa, is a specimen of macho manhood to be treasured: In his desire to suck in his paunch, he turns his entire body into a perpetual leer.
The key performance, though, is Miss Cronin's. Fat Francine is the only character who successfully rides all of Mr. Innaurato's moods. In Act I, she erupts in one of the playwright's inimitable arias: a foul-mouthed defense of obesity that goes to the outer limits of farce without ever losing touch with genuine feeling. In Act II, her circumspect dissection of her marriage is the one quiet scene that works: she goes for our emotional jugular without ever forsaking her initial comic beat. From Francine, we can extrapolate that Innaurato play that is entirely faithful to its creator's remarkable vision. If "Passione" is not that play, it nonetheless keeps the promise alive.