Francesca Vannucci and John Turturro in Souls of Naples

(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Francesca Vannucci and John Turturro in Souls of Naples
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
A star performance by stage and screen actor John Turturro isn't quite enough to save Souls of Naples, now receiving its New York premiere in an uneven production at Theatre for a New Audience. Italian playwright Eduardo de Filippo's 1946 work is presented here in a new translation by Michael Feingold.

Set in Naples in the year 1946, the play centers around Pasquale (Turturro), an ambitious but foolhardy man who lives from hand to mouth but wants much more. He moves into a spacious 17th-century palazzo with his young wife, Maria (Francesca Vannucci). He's getting the place rent-free; there are rumors that the palazzo is haunted and the landlord is trying to improve its reputation by demonstrating that a tenant can live there and survive. Raffaele (Max Casella), the doorman, regales Pasquale with tales of ghosts and strange visions. He even claims that his sister Carmela (Didi Conn) was so frightened by something she saw that her hair turned white.

But things are not quite what they seem. Raffaele has a habit of stealing various items that are lying about, including neckties, handkerchiefs, and sundry food items. He attributes these disappearances to the ghosts and warns Pasquale that he shouldn't complain about such things to the police: "Ghosts and spirits don't take these things lightly -- they slap you around and kick you, and knock you on the head." After testimonials from both Raffaele and Carmela, Pasquale is nearly convinced that the ghosts do exist. That's when the play takes a quick turn from quirky supernatural thriller to farce. Maria has been having an affair with the wealthy Alfredo (Juan Carlos Hernandez); in an absolutely hilarious scene, Pasquale catches the two of them in the room together and mistakes Alfredo for a ghost. From then on, comic misunderstandings abound, eventually involving Alfredo's wife, Armida (Aida Turturro); the couple's two children (life-sized puppets manipulated by Felix Blaska and Bill Bowers); and Armida's brother, Gastone (Rocco Sisto).

Turturro is excellent, demonstrating uncanny comic timing and facial expressions while always making Pasquale emotionally grounded. The character's two heartfelt speeches towards the end of the play -- one to his wife, the other to the supposed "ghost" -- are rich in emotion without seeming either soppy or melodramatic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is uneven. Casella is often amusing, and Hernandez is a treat despite his tendency to over-emote. Conn has only one major scene, but she makes the most of it with her eccentric demeanor and cartoonish voice. Sisto's Gastone is a letdown, as the actor seems completely disconnected from the words that he utters. Vannucci is a cipher as Maria; although she's an attractive woman, her portrayal makes it difficult for us to see what makes Maria so enchanting to several of the men in the play. Simply put, she has no personality.

The play itself is sharpest in the first act, treading the line between suspense and comedy. The second act drags, particularly the scene where Armida and her family visit Pasquale's home and he mistakes them for ghosts. However, Act II does introduce a more serious, underlying theme within the play, as it becomes obvious that Alfredo is trying to "buy" Maria from her husband; he leaves him mysterious gifts, including large sums of money. Pasquale, of course, thinks they're from the ghost, but Maria knows the truth. Souls of Naples seems to ask if it's possible to turn a blind eye to deception and betrayal as long as one is continually well provided for. In many ways, it's a critique of complacency. The play certainly must have resonated with audiences during the post-World War II period in which it was written and first performed, and it continues to have meaning today. Yet this production lacks the punch necessary to make it consistently engaging.

The action lags whenever Turturro is not on stage, and director Roman Paska has made some rather bizarre staging choices. First of all, there's an inconsistency in the use of dialects: Turturro maintains an Italian accent throughout, whereas others either have no trace of an accent or are inconsistent in this regard. Additionally, some of the actors turn in oddly stylized performances. Aida Turturro's Armida, for example, breaks into song and describes her woes in an overtly presentational way, while Sisto's Gastone exhibits sudden spurts of volume and energy. (He also has a tendency to move his limbs in a mechanical fashion.) The end result is a mishmash of styles that is detrimental to the cohesiveness of the production.