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Imperfect Love

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 4, 2018

David O’Hara, Aidan Redmond, Cristina Spina,
Ed Malone and Rodrigo Lopresti
Photo by Richard Termine

The Connelly Theater, on East Fourth, is an elegant old-style off-Broadway house, with gilded proscenium arch, dramatic red curtain, and ample wing space to store enormous set changes. Which makes it an apt venue for Imperfect Love, Brandon Cole's "serious comedy" chronicling onstage and backstage crises at Rome's Teatro Argentina 120 years ago or so. Cole has researched the period and the dramatis personae—based on the great actress Eleonora Duse and her playwright-poet-lover, Gabriele D'Annunzio—exhaustively, and the heady scent of greasepaint certainly fills the air, metaphorically if not literally. As a celebration of theater and an exploration of how the form absorbs or fails to absorb change, Imperfect Love—we don't find out what the title means until the closing moments—is diverting. There just isn't a whole lot else going on.

Why change the names, anyway? Duse is now Eleonora Della Rosa (Cristina Spina), variously and confusingly referred to by her first and last names, and D'Annunzio is Gabriele Torrisi (Rodrigo Lopresti), the temperamental author (and director? there's no mention of one) whose vehicle for her has just suffered a disastrous opening night. The never-named play he wrote is about . . . well, we never find out, and that's a problem. All we know is, the critics hated it, and hated the leading lady, despite her preeminence and popularity on the Rome stage. They're backstage on the morning after to fix the thing, most particularly her big speech at the end. Which also makes little sense—it's opened, the press has weighed in, would minor revisions make much of a difference? (OK, going way back, some musicals fine-tuned after opening—Camelot, Wish You Were Here, The Gay Life—and two of them became hits, though not because of the adjustments. But in 1899? Doubtful.)

The lapses of logic continue. The theater's offstage owners have already said they're closing Gabriele's play and replacing it with A Doll's House, yet Rosa and Gabriele and eventually the rest of the cast persist in agonizing over how to turn this flop into a hit. It's a small cast for such a spectacle, consisting also of Beppo (David O'Hara) and Marco (Ed Malone), the clowns, and Domenica (Aidan Redmond), the vain leading man. Aidan Redmond, tall and commanding, has a beautiful baritone that can also fade to a whisper and still be heard in the last row. He strides on, and we know we're in the presence of a pro.

The rest of the actors aren't so lucky. O'Hara and Malone, accomplished clowns both, haven't been given a lot to do but interrupt and meddle. (Beppo's last-minute intervention to save the play is based on a wildly improbable premise, but O'Hara does play it well.) Spina, while managing a couple of good fiery moments later on, hasn't yet grown into Rosa; we don't see why this uncertain presence, wandering aimlessly about the stage and stepping on other characters' lines, would be a leading lady for a major theatrical company. And Lopresti, stuck with playing an unlikable prima-donna playwright who may or may not be carrying on with Sarah Bernhardt in Paris while swearing allegiance to Rosa in Rome, mostly shouts and blusters. He also has coughing fits, a plot strain that's left utterly hanging.

Cole's evidently been working on this play for years, and his old buddy John Turturro helped bring it to the stage. Turturro even directed a 1998 film, Illuminata, based on the same material. They must believe in it a lot, and I wish I saw what they see in it. The theatrical and romantic squabbles can be entertaining, and it's set at a fascinating moment in theatrical history, when traditional historical spectacles were brushing up against the relative avant-garde of Ibsen and Strindberg. (Though A Doll's House premiered in 1879, so why it would suddenly be raising a ruckus in Rome two decades later is unclear.) Cole just doesn't have much to say about it, and Michael Di Jiacomo's unfocused direction gives us little to contemplate but the excesses of artistic temperament. There's considerable yelling and knife-brandishing, but we never really believe anyone's in danger. And the ending is. . . . So did they solve things? Will the play prosper? Are Rosa and Gabriele solid again? No idea.

There's plenty to look at, and Gianni Quaranta, who won an Oscar for A Room with a View some decades back, has designed a set change that justifies all the scrambling and scraping we hear behind the curtain during intermission. The Act One set isn't entirely logical—if we're backstage, what's front-of-house doing on the backdrop?—but the Act Two trimmings are sumptuous, and so are Quaranta's costumes.

Cole dedicates Imperfect Love to Beckett and Pirandello, but the influence of neither is immediately felt; the backstage backbiting and onstage back-and-forth insults feel more like Kaufman and Hart on an off day. Still, if you're partial to theatrical atmosphere and shop talk, you could do a lot worse than this one. And whatever Aidan Redmond does next, I want to see it.

Imperfect Love
Through February 18
The Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street
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