"Filumena," which came to the St. James last night, is an old rooster of a play still trying to crow, a creaky sentimental comedy contrivance that nevertheless furnishes a fairly diverting evening thanks to a canny production boasting strong performances and skillful direction.
Every turn of this vintage Eduardo De Filippo play, in a new English adaptation, is predictable even to those unfamiliar with the 1964 Sophia Loren-Marcello Mastroianni movie "Marriage, Italian Style," or an earlier Broadway version that enjoyed only three performances in 1956 under the title "The Best House in Naples." But it is the strain on our theatergoers' credulity rather than its predictability that taxes the patience from time to time.
Joan Plowright, recreating the role she performed for a couple of seasons in London, plays a onetime brothel inmate named Filumena who for the past quarter of a century has been serving as chatelaine for her most devoted client, Domenico, a rich Naples confectioner, a white-haired bantam who refuses to act his age. Now (the time is 1946), having pretended to be on her deathbed, she has gotten her protector to summon a priest and make an honest woman of her, and the play opens with Domenico in a towering rage, for Filumena has leapt out of bed immediately following the ceremony.
Of the numerous complications that follow, the most important is her revelation that she has produced three sons, all grown men now in different lines of work, and that one of them is Domenico's. She, of course, refuses to identify him, and Domenico has the marriage annulled on grounds of duplicity. But over the next 10 months he repents, and all ends happily.
The plot developments are paid out gradually and in such a way as to produce climaxes and curtain lines for each of the three acts, for this is, after all, an old-fashioned construction. Additional characters include, besides the three sons, Domenico's current young mistress (or "cow," as Filumena calls her); the latter's lawyer, a commedia dell'arte figure, and various servants.
Oddly, the statuesque Plowright, though she makes a forceful and even appealing Filumena, is a bit too resolutely British to be entirely suitable. The most telling performance is that of Frank Finlay as Domenico. Suave, vain, explosive and uncertain by turn, Finlay gives a marvelous account of a man being led by the nose all the time he thinks he is doing the leading. His Domenico alone is probably worth a visit.
The sons are nicely differentiated among Peter Iacangello as a stocky plumber with a growing family of his own; Stephen Schnetzeras as a sleek haberdasher who, like Domenico, enjoys playing the field; and Dennis Boutsikaris as an accountant and the most serious-minded of the three. Pierre Epstein is amusing as the comic lawyer, and Miriam Phillips is first-rate as Filumena's wise septuagenarian maid. Donna Davis as the unfortunate mistress and Ernest Sarracino as another elderly servant are also entertaining.
Laurence Olivier, who took over the direction from Franco Zeffirelli before the production came to Broadway, has staged it excellently, with a fine eye for detail, and not always the obvious one in such an obvious play.
Raimonda Gaetanihas designed a perfectly hideous but entirely authentic-looking high-ceilinged living room with lots of heavy furniture and a long lived-in look, and has also provided the exemplary costumes. Thomas Skelton has lighted the play suitably.
"Filumena" is a comedy that shows its age, dragging at times, but it is a cheerful enough piece of work and brought surprisingly close to life by a gifted cast and superb direction.
It is an ordinary early evening in Naples. The time is 1946. Domenico Soriano, wealthy confectioner, race-horse owner and 52-year-old playboy is almost having a heart attack. Or perhaps it is simply that his immaculately coiffed mane of white hair is about to erupt like Vesuvius. At any rate he is a near speechless as a Neapolitan can ever get except in the silent movies.
He is furious. But why? His common-law wife of 25 years, Filumena has miraculously risen, almost minutes earlier, from her death bed. The priest has only just left after giving the last rites - and, in fulfillment of the dying woman's wish, marrying her to Soriano.
So here he is, helpless raging at fate, a man fully expecting to be a widow tricked into becoming a bridegroom. And he has already ordered dinner for himself and his latest girlfriend.
That is the beginning of Filumena, Eduardo de Filippo's comedy which opened last night at the St. James Theater. It is a genre comedy of a type common in Europe but unusual, very unusual, in America. There are no jokes, and certainly no wisecracks. The humor - and it is often beautifully, heartwarmingly funny - comes solely from the characters and the situation. There are no one-liners. Take Henry Youngman, please!
The British writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse have adapted Filippo's play - they provided the same service for his earlier Broadway entry, Saturday, Sunday, Monday - with idiomatic ease. And the entire, sweet silly little story unfolds as gracefully as a resonant Neapolitan folk song.
The mood of the Neapolitan folk song, indeed its very style and artistry, is totally apt here. For, as with those nostalgic, moon-drenched songs full of love, chianti and bombast, this is the kind of play that needs to be performed to the hilt. Unless you are totally in the mood (and that is rarely musical) you need a Gigli or a Schipa to sing something like Santa Lucia Luntana. Here in Filumina the acting and the staging spotlight the singers not the song.
The story of Filumena, rescued from a whorehouse and attempting to give her three bastard sons a good name - that of Soriano - may sound familiar to you. In 1964, Vittorio De Sica made a whirlwind movie Marriage Italian Style, based on the play and starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as the feuding lovers.
This English version, originally staged by Franco Zeffirelli, ran for two years in London, picking up awards like a magnet.
I saw it in London, with its current Broadway stars Joan Plowright and Frank Finlay, and was mildly amused but grossly underwhelmed. During the out-of-town tryouts, Zeffirelli hearing the first gun-pops of adverse criticism suddenly developed an urgent engagement in Europe, handing over the direction to Miss Plowright's husband, the not exactly inexperienced, Laurence Olivier.
What Sir Laurence has done I am not at all sure, but it certainly works far better than when I caught the play in London. It has much more pace and vitality. The setting and costumes by Raimonda Gaetani are, however, irredeemably gloomy - but then so is downtown Naples.
The acting is more fun that it is Italian. Miss Plowright is about as Italian as Yorkshire pudding, and wisely, I suspect, makes no concessions to an accent. Finlay, more ambitious, does a heart-throbbing imitation of an Italian-style maitre d' in a London Soho restaurant.
No matter. Miss Plowright's gritty determination to find a place in the sun for her oddly assorted and fatherless brood is admirably convincing. Her toughness, her flurries of triumph, and her indomitable will, would move mountains. One only wonders why she waited so long to pin her man down.
Finlay is the most genuinely fake Italian actor you are ever going to see - no Italian could do it better, because an Italian would be embarassed. He is a wonderful performer - far too little known on our stage - who can turn the merest gesture into an unlikely poem. This portrayal is one of the gems of the season.
The play has been neatly cast - far better than was Saturday, Sunday Monday - with Miriam Phillips and Ernest Sarracino delicately loyal and decrepit as old retainers, and Dennis Boutsikaris, Stephen Schnetzer and Peter Iacangelo as the nicely assorted trio of brothers-out-of-law.
Have a good Italian dinner first, walk off the pasta by strolling to the theater humming Come Back to Sorrento, gain your seat, sit down, breath garlic over your neighbors, relax, and enjoy. After all it's cheaper than Naples. But further away from Capri.
In "Filumena," the new borrowing from Italy that has come to us by way of Britain, it is perfectly clear that Joan Plowright and Frank Finlay live in the same house in Naples. Miss Plowright, wrapped in a gray shawl and measuring the world with her enormous injured eyes, has been installed there some 25 years earlier by owner Finlay, who rescued her from a brothel and turned her into his loving workhorse. Now she's tricked him into marrying her and has plumped herself down into a hideously slipcovered armchair to proclaim herself mistress of his domain. His house is her house and you can tell from her complacently folded arms that she belongs there. What you cannot tell is how they ever managed to get into the same play.
Eduardo De Filippo's longish squabble over whether or not these two aging contenders will or won't stay married (English version by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) is an exceedingly curious business that seems to me unlikely to repeat its two-year London run here. At first, it only sounds curious. Mr. Finlay, a superb actor whom you will quickly recall as the Iago of Laurence Olivier's filmed "Othello," is making use of an Italian accent thick enough to resemble a bowl of minestrone that's been left in the refrigerator for a week.
He's good, mind you. Splendid, even. But he doesn't seem to have come from any neighborhood Miss Plowright ever inhabited or visited. She's using a blurtingly defiant speech rhythm undoubtedly meant to suggest her unhappy slum origins, but it still ripples off her tongue in a tune that is patently British.
The supporting players who scurry back and forth between them - with Vesuvius faintly visible through the conservatory windows - employ a wide, wild range of dialect sounds that would do credit to the Tower of Babel, and you wind up wondering why the original director (Franco Zeffirelli) or his successor (Lord Olivier himself) permitted the use of any accents at all. The effect is not one of close harmony. But accents are the least of it. Both of the evening's distinguished principals are prepared to give their all to the tantrums and treacheries of this three-act imbroglio. The chief difficulty is that it cannot be the same all. Mr. Finlay's function as he threatens to spit in his own face (provided he can find a handy mirror) is mainly comic. Miss Plowright's, as she spells out the poverty that drove her into a whorehouse at 17, is mainly sentimental. The two are left, then, inhabiting the same area but not delivering the same arias, and the effect is unsettling. We never quite adjust ourselves to the kind of play we're attending.
The performers aren't to be faulted. The piece is written that way, see-saw style. Mr. Finlay, a man whose lightning-quick yet infinitely graceful gestures make music out of movement, is given his best opportunities whenever the evening edges close to farce. Once Miss Plowright has coolly informed him that she is actually the mother of three grown sons, and then, an act later, has just as coolly announced that one of the sons is his, the actor's mock glee (really rage) over the news that he has just become an instant grandfather is funny, admirably so.
And when he has actually met these relics of a devout woman's time in a brothel (she's made a vow to the Madonna of the Roses that she'd bear any child that happened along), he is juicier still. Because he doesn't know which of the young men is truly his - the hefty plumber, the natty shirtmaker or the uncertain poet - he's forced to move studiously among them, sizing them up for flattering resemblances, prodding them for character traits he may possibly have passed along.
Mr. Finlay doesn't play into what is most broadly written. If he's in no hurry to make the children legitimate, he wants the farce legitimate. His work, as he prowls the terrain trying to sniff out a direct descendant, is sly, salty, and a considerate pleasure to watch.
Miss Plowright is equally accomplished but has the less gratifying work to do. Though the various playwrights involved had in each instance asked her to set the comic dominoes a-toppling, they have then retired her to the sidelines until there is room for soberer set-speech. She is briefly touching in her awkwardness as she tries to face up to the task of telling the young men just who and what they are, and she has banked fires in reserve for an extended passage in which she justifies the earlier life she's lived.
Describing what it was like to share a bed with two brothers and a sister at 13, to feel that she was stealing food from her siblings every time she put a fork into the single bowl of food on the evening table, to see other and more adventurous girls wearing splendid new shoes and carrying smart handbags, the actress is graphic, persuasive, in unforced command of her audience (onstage and off).
If the plaint never quite moves us, it's because the authors have permitted the pitch for sympathy to become too obvious, the materials themselves too familiar. Remembering her mother's distress at her choice of a profession, the onetime prostitute must tell us that "When the time came for me to leave, she turned her head the other way." That is stock, and it is mawkish. Miss Plowright makes it as straightforward and unselfpitying as she can.
There's no bringing the evening of mixed moods into real balance, though, not even when the three sons - played well enough by Dennis Boutsikaris, Stephen Schnetzer and Peter Iacangelo - are doing some wary tight-rope walking between an amusingly volatile "father" and a mother given to touching her breasts as she says "I don't care what your law says, I only care about the law in here."
One last word about an additional puzzle. Raimonda Gaetani's setting is deep, narrow, overhung with ancient family photographs and irredeemably, depressingly ugly. It looks like a real house, all right. But fight for possession of it?