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Tennessee and me:
Franca Barchiesi and Roy Miller
in Roman Nights
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The lives of renowned playwright Tennessee Williams and Italian actress Anna Magnani are rich with dramatic possibility. So it's unfortunate that Franco D'Alessandro's Roman Nights, which chronicles the 25-year-long friendship between these two famous artists, fails to capture the vitality inherent in the subject matter. D'Alessandro has obviously spent a lot of time researching both figures and the ways their lives intersected, but he hasn't been able to sort through and edit that material in order to give his play a dramatic arc.

The play, directed by Bick Goss, is a chronological journey through the lives and careers of Williams and Magnani beginning in 1945, just before their first meeting. It opens with Williams (Roy Miller) directly addressing the audience as he composes a diary entry upon his arrival in Italy. Though Miller bears a certain physical resemblance to Williams, his performance is stilted and unconvincing; the actor declaims rather than speaks, and he never seems emotionally connected to the words he utters. In contrast, Franca Barchiesi is engaging and believable as Magnani, possessing a captivating stage presence that brings this diva to life.

Magnani served as inspiration for several of Williams' most memorable female characters -- including Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, for which role she won the 1956 Oscar for Best Actress. Roman Nights does not stop at examining the pair's artistic collaboration, however; D'Alessandro tries to cram in as much biographical detail about both characters as possible but often fails to make the necessary segués in dialogue, and so the characters jump from personal revelation to personal revelation with nary a transition to make these leaps even remotely believable. Nor do the characters display much consistency. In one scene, Anna tells Tennessee that they need to be quiet as her son Luca is sleeping in the next room; but just a few minutes later, Anna is yelling from offstage, her son quite forgotten. Anna also goes out for a long night on the town with her friend right after explaining that Luca, who suffers from polio, is home from the clinic for only a brief visit.

In addition to Luca, the most important offstage character in Roman Nights is Frank "Frankie" Merlo, Tennessee's companion of 16 years, who is often a subject of conversation and conflict between Anna and Tennessee. She believes that he treats Frankie poorly, cheating on him with great frequency despite Frankie's utter devotion to the playwright. It becomes clear that Anna identifies with Frankie because many of her own lovers have cheated on her. These are the moments in the play that seem the most real; sadly, they are few and far between.

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