Wives + The Academy [two one acts]

by Mario Fratti
Directed by Stephan Morrow

Featuring [The Wives] Carlotta Brentan, Giulia Brisnella;
[The Academy] Michael Striano, Taylor Petracek, Tucker Lewis, Fergus Scully, Nick Palazzo, Kellan Peavy, Stephan Morrow, Katie Rose Reynolds

Theatre for the New City
October 8, 2015 – October 25, 2015 

Wives. Carlotta Brentan and Giulia Bisinella. Image by Jonathan Slaff.
Wives. Carlotta Brentan and Giulia Bisinella. Image by Jonathan Slaff.
The Academy. Entire cast, as active as they ever get. Image by Jonathan Slaff.
The Academy. Entire cast, as active as they ever get, director Stephan Morrow as The Professor at far right. Image by Jonathan Slaff.

The Theater for the New City recently hosted a run of two Mario Fratti one acts written 50 years apart. The extended musings capture different dimensions of a particular view of the “battle of the sexes” — men rule, and women adjust themselves to the men in their lives in a range of ways — as help mates, as spouses, but never as true partners. The more recently crafted Wives was presented first, in which two women with a single man in common compare notes on how to deal with him, yet learn little about each other. A revival of The Academy, first produced at the Lortel (then the Theatre De Lys) in 1963 evokes post World War Two Rome, then in the not-far-distant past, where seven men and one almost silent woman take center stage at a school for gigolos. In this assembled theatrical evening, economics and power plays are described and executed in various ways — women marry into their resources in 2015 New York and men offer themselves as paid escorts in 1950s Italy. The challenge of this particular production is that while we are able to think through these particular worlds through Fratti’s often intriguing and entertaining dialogue, we never feel them through the stilted direction and stand-and-deliver acting and segmented use of a challenging long and narrow theater space.

Wives is set in modern day New York City among well-to-do partners of a well-to-do man. The characters are named only for their roles in relation to the off-stage man in their lives — The Third (Carlotta Brentan), now divorced ex-wife, and The Fourth (Guilia Bisinella), the nervous and curious finance who would be fourth in line. The women on stage have no names but we eventually learn his — Albert. The direction keeps the women almost immobile, standing for the full act, once Fourth enters (never removing her coat) what we are to believe is Third’s home. We learn that neither woman is a victim, yet the women essentially report their lives to one another.  Our ability to engage in their story is hampered despite the charming stage presences of both actresses.

The Academy is a slice of history and image of a time — Fagin’s ragamuffins making do as pickpockets in Victorian London all grown up. Our young men (all handsome, all given limited range of moment) are as immobile as the women in Wives — seated for long periods of time, responding to their instructor on topics and strategies we quickly determine are related to soliciting the interest of lonely wealthy women and executing their expected tasks on the job. This is a view into a fictional world inspired by reality, certainly. From the perspective of 2015, the developments in the play and the vetting role played by the professors “wife” that eventually is revealed, are neither shocking nor surprising.

The direction provided by Stephan Morrow, who also appears as The Professor (head of the gigolo school in The Academy), is stiff. The plays are intriguing and might be better served either by a simple staged reading (standing at music stands would not set up the expectation of actors moving through space in way that augments the theatrical experience) or by more intensely producing the pieces. This middle ground dulls the senses rather than focusing them on the characters on stage. Fratti has crafted nuanced road maps in these two plays. The presentation as directed and designed held few layers and the stories lost some of their potency in the translation.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 31, 2015)

Playwright | Mario Fratti
Director | Stephan Morrow
Set Design | Mark Marcante and “set artist” Litza Colon
Lighting Design | Alex Barenieff

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