How can the revival of a 1953 play dramatizing a middle-aged, female tourist's dalliance with infidelity possibly shock or draw emotion from audiences long desensitized by society's flippant treatment of monogamy? Two answers to that overblown question: Cast the glorious Debra Monk in your production and don't underestimate the power of romance, which is, alas, exactly what Lincoln Center does with its revival of The Time of the Cuckoo, running at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre.
This bittersweet comedy by the legendary Arthur Laurents hasn't seen a major production in New York since its Broadway premiere. The story, however, has had an interestingly prolific life, first as the inspiration for the classic Katharine Hepburn film Summertime, then as the basis for the Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear a Waltz?
Set in 1950s Venice, the plot revolves around Leona Samish (Debra Monk), an American spinster attempting to solve her mid-life crisis by traveling through Europe. The play opens in the garden courtyard of a lush and beautiful pensione run by the spirited Signora Fioria (Cigden Onat) and her ingénue servant Giovanna (Chiara Mangiameli). Other guests at the exotic hotel include the elderly couple Edith and Lloyd McIlhenny (Polly Holliday & Tom Aldredge) and the seemingly vibrant and loving newlyweds Eddie and June Yaeger (Adam Trese & Ana Reeder).
Leona at first appears to be optimistic, confident, and full of life as a single, 40-something Midwesterner. When the various couples and characters retire or go their own way for the evening, leaving Leona alone to eat her dinner and to listen to the romantic calls of the gondoliers drifting through the Venetian air, the audience, in a moment, sees how repressed and lonely she truly is.
The next afternoon, Leona receives a visit from Renato Di Rossi (Olek Krupa), a shopkeeper who sold her a beautiful goblet the day before. When the elegant, handsome Italian man asks Leona to have coffee with him that evening, she is struck with anxiety, wondering how anyone could pursue someone like herself. Despite her confusion and hesitancy--stemming from her introversion and fear of intimacy--Leona decides to accept. The smile that appears on her face after this encounter is one of the most genuine moments of the whole production.
Eventually Leona learns that her suitor is married and has a son. When she lashes out at Renato, he explains that in Italy, emotions are meant to be acted upon, and that there is no such thing as infidelity--only passion. Desperate for any sort of affection, Leona overcomes her anger and once again puts her faith in Renato, quickly falling in love with him. The result of this relationship is entirely predictable, but crushing just the same.
Leona Samish, a complex character if there ever was one, is given a heartfelt portrayal by the always wonderful and enchanting Monk. The Tony Award-winning actress is more than up to dealing with the emotional catharsis of this deeply lonesome character. The scene where Leona transforms from an enthusiastically love-struck tourist to a bitterly embroiled lover is nothing less than masterful. As her Italian lover, Olek Krupa dutifully matches Monk's simple and truthful performance with his version of Di Rossi as an unapologetic man who will never deny his powerful emotions. When Leona refuses to give back a necklace he bought for her, he lashes out, saying that Americans always need something material to hold onto, that their feelings and memories are never enough.
The production's other noteworthy performances include Onat's wonderfully sexy and commanding presence as Signora Fioria, a performance that completely conveys the character's lack of remorse--or guilt--for having an affair with the newlywed husband. Stage veterans Holliday and Aldredge are also a joy to watch as the McIlhennys, but their parts are so miniscule that they are easily forgotten. Mangiameli as Giovanna, Paolo Pagliacolo as Di Rossi's son Vito, and Sebastian Uriarte as the adorable streetwise kid Mauro all put their wonderful natural acting talents to good use.
Regrettably, two actors do not possess quite the caliber of talent that the rest of the company provides. Reeder's portrayal of a young wife sexually scorned by her husband's infidelity is superficial at best; she never shows the audience the true pain that lies beneath a betrayed woman's soul. She doesn't have much to play off of, however--Trese's performance runs the gamut of emotions from A to A.
Set designer James Noone brings his attractive re-creation of an Italian villa to life. The design of the pensione with its rustic walls covered in hanging vines and its mosaic tile floor are absolutely charming, as is Brian MacDevitt's lighting design, which captures the alluring daytime and night of an Italian summer.