Sixteenth-century commedia dell’arte certainly didn’t shy away from crudity, but in his recreation of the era, The Miracle at Naples, now premiering at the Huntington Theatre, David Grimm really pushes the envelope. It’s hard to believe that this is the same playwright who gave us the witty subtleties of The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, his updating of Moliere. As in Measure for Pleasure, his more recent take on Restoration comedy, Grimm once again impastos a contemporary sensibility — and vocabulary to match — on a loosely sketched period piece.
He stakes out his territory from the very first line. “To hell with my virginity!” proclaims the sheltered heroine, Flaminia (Christina Pumariega). Her duenna, Francescina (Alma Cuervo), clues her in to a certain practice that will preserve it, and thus her ability to get married: Should a man make headway in her nether region, “Introduce him to your neighbor … brown-eyed Bertha.” It’s advice which Flamina adapts with alacrity, exploring the territory with not one but two itinerant actors that very afternoon.
From thereon, it’s one improbability piled on another: What proper gentlewoman of that era would so counsel the maiden on whom her livelihood depends? (The technique she recommends can be a slippery slope, not to mention a poor risk in terms of contraception.) And what Catholic-to-the-core virgin would leap to the bait without a moment’s hesitation?
Setting aside disbelief, it quickly becomes all too apparent that this impromptu ménage a trois is a device to unmask an attraction between the two actors involved, Tristano and Matteo (Pedro Pascal and Gregory Wooddell). The former is a classic scamp, while the latter is a dunderhead who turns out to be endowed with plenty of emotional intelligence. Wooddell’s sincerity in the role and the moving way in which he conveys Matteo’s sweet naivete becomes an anchor amid the swirl of superficial, unsympathetic characters.
Among them are the troupe’s leader, Don Bertolino (Dick Latessa), who’s contemptuous of his co-workers and verbally abusive to his hard-working if undersized daughter, “La Piccola.” (“Little turd” is an endearment in his book.) He’s not cute, especially as curmudgeons go, and his presumably gooey center doesn’t invite probing. For her part, “La Piccola, is abrasive and martyric, and even Lucy DeVito’s excellent comic timing can’t quite compensate for the uncomfortable experience of having to watch her absorb a barrage of vicious physical descriptions. The only one who comes out smelling like a rose is Francescina, thanks primarily to Cuervo’s innate luminosity.
There’s one other saving grace here: set designer Alexander Dodge’s deep-perspective Neapolitan courtyard. If only the stock figures prancing about in it had as much credibility — and could see beyond the gutter — a miracle might really occur.