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Tony Randall, Mireille Enos, Penny Fuller, Natalie Norwick,
and Yolande Bavan in Right You Are
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The story goes that, when Luigi Pirandello's Cosi e, se vi pare (usually translated as Right You Are, If You Think You Are) opened in Rome during the 1918 season, much of the attending crowd cheered but some were infuriated by the dramatist's inconclusive ending. Apparently, one incensed patron -- not content to shout obscenities as others were doing -- ripped his seat from the floor and heaved it at Pirandello, who'd been called on stage. The outsized object missed Pirandello, who righted it, sat down, and said: "Thank you so much, it's been a very tiring day."

It's unlikely that anyone seeing the National Actors Theatre production will react like the chair-throwing fellow. After all, when the first viewers of Pirandello's early play took it in, they'd never seen anything comparable; now, the experimental dramatist's concern with truth and illusion has been under consideration for over 80 years. Much of Pirandello's seminal propositions about theater, life, and the relationship between the two have been adopted, adapted, and developed to the point where some contemporary theatergoers might scrutinize what the company calls simply Right You Are (the text used is the Eric Bentley translation) and comment, "Been there, done that."

But extremely theater-wise people aren't the only ones who may resist the intellectual and comedic charms of the NAT's take on the play. The production has a static quality that perhaps can be attributed to its having been directed by Fabrizio Melano, who more regularly directs operas. Melano's familiarity with singers' talents, which don't always extend to sophisticated acting, could account for staging that often consists of performers remaining in one place at long intervals while delivering lines as if they were about to launch into arias. This is not good when a play, no matter how intriguing (which this one is), is also talky (which this one also is).

The frenzied chatter in Right You Are is carried on at the home of Councillor Agazzi (Henry Strozier) and his wife, Amalia (Penny Fuller), when the lady of the house and daughter Dina (Mireille Enos) return after attempting to visit a new neighbor. The lady whom they weren't able to see is seemingly being kept from her daughter, who lives some further distance away, by an oddly behaving husband. After friends drop in on the Agazzis -- Signor and Signora Sirelli (Peter Maloney, Jurian Hughes) and Signora Cini (Yolande Bavan) -- speculation about the mysterious lady intensifies. It further escalates when the lady herself, Signora Frola (Maria Tucci), is ushered in and explains that she's perfectly content communicating with her immured daughter from a courtyard. That confession settles little in view of what happens immediately after she's departed: Signor Ponza (Brennan Brown) barrels on to say that Signora Frola is off her rocker, that her daughter died four years earlier, and that the woman he won't let Signora Frola call on is his second wife.

Panting to ascertain whose story is accurate, the Agazzis and coterie devise a plot by which Signora Frola and Signor Ponza will be asked to the house at the same time but without the other one knowing. The prying group hopes and expects that the ruse will result in the whole truth being revealed. The only participant who holds himself apart from the scheme is Signora Agazzi's no-nonsense brother, Lamberto Laudisi (Tony Randall), who insists that truth is relative and that, in the end, people are right if they think they are. The upshot of the forced Signora Frola/Signor Ponza confrontation hews to Laudisi's -- and, by implication, Pirandello's -- view. This deliberately indecisive denouement may have been what prompted that irate Roman first-nighter to toss a chair in lieu of a handy rotten tomato. (Earlier this year, a London production of Pirandello's artful and somewhat artificial comedy-drama was directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Joan Plowright as Signora Frola and Oliver Ford Davies as Lamberto Laudisi. Zeffirelli and Martin Sherman, who translated and adapted the play, were evidently so struck by how closely Lamberto Laudisi represents the author's philosophy that they depicted the contrary brother-in-law taking notes and holding sheets of paper as if preparing a Pirandello-esque script. Incidentally, the title used for the West End mounting was Absolutely {Perhaps}.)

Brennan Brown and Florencia Lozano
in Right You Are
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Pirandello's pulling the rug of certainty out from under his characters -- and by extension, demanding that observers also question the nature of absolutes -- remains compelling, even if director Melano only livens things up during the second act with the agitated arrival of Frola and Ponza as well as the police Commissioner (Peter Ganim) and the governor (Fred Burrell). The play's allure may even be enhanced by the fact that, nowadays, gossip is not just a household or court pastime but has become an international industry. Pirandello pinpoints and then pooh-poohs this "inquiring minds need to know" syndrome, and Melano underlines it with a deft bit of business in which all of the characters repeatedly and simultaneously lean forward in their seats whenever they think that something dishy is about to be divulged.

Catching the playwright's spirit, set designer James Noone even provides a visual pun on Pirandello's joke about the inquisitive citizen's longing to learn indivisible truths when partial truths and illusions are all that anyone might expect to gain. Noone has fashioned a large drawing room with marble columns and a black-and-white floor that calls to mind the urban vistas painted by Renaissance artists when they first mastered perspective. One's perspective is all that can be counted on, Pirandello is saying, and Noone recognizes that in this modish interpretation of a rich man's home during the years of Italian fascism. (Here, the action is set in the 1930s, even though the play was written in 1917.) Noone also positions a music room beyond the drawing-room, but it's not seen until Act II, when Kirk Bookman's lights go on inside it and the characters repair there to buzz some more. It should also be noted that costume designer Noel Taylor's colorful '30s suits and frocks look particularly gorgeous in the black-and-white surroundings and even more gorgeous when reflected and distorted in the shiny upstage walls. (This is another of Noone's puns.)

Randall, NAT's indefatigable artistic director and founder, has chosen a large-cast foreign play to add to the company's growing list of not-seen-every-day items. For the most part, his troupe comes through, and Randall himself does a bang-up job as Laudisi. Beginning to stoop physically now that he's 83, Randall is little diminished otherwise and gives an amusingly tart reading; his beetle-browed skepticism is fun to watch. Tucci's Signora Frola is entirely believable and utterly touching; this is nothing new from her, since she's always believable and touching, but it's reassuring. Of the others, Fuller and Enos as mother and daughter Agazzi are effective, and Brown as the passionate Signor Ponza is especially noteworthy.

What's most appealing about both Tucci and Brown is that they don't put ironic distance between themselves and their characters; both seem to be, umm, telling the truth. When all is said and done, truth isn't black-and-white. And, despite James Noone's stunning set, neither is this production.

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