In Eduardo De Filippo’s 1946 comedy Souls of Naples, the desperate husband Pasquale sees what he wants and needs to believe. So perhaps it’s worth mentioning first what we might have wanted to see in Theater for a New Audience’s rare presentation of De Filippo (1900-1984), one of Italy’s most prolific and popular 20th-century dramatists. I hoped they would show New York audiences why this Neapolitan playwright commands such an interest. De Filippo’s play, known in Italian as Questi Fantasmi!, offers a quasi-modernist variation on traditional themes of cuckoldry and social aspirations. The dialogue, crammed with colloquialisms and odd pauses and breaks, moves at a jerky, lurching pace, and scenes often detour into extended commedia-like business.
Short on cash, Pasquale (John Turturro), a middle-aged fellow with a young wife, takes a job as caretaker of a house no one wants to live in. He dreams of opening a respectable Naples pensione, once he demonstrates that its former inhabitants—adulterers sealed up alive in its walls by a jealous husband—no longer haunt the place. When he discovers his own wife with her wealthy paramour, Pasquale deludes himself into believing it’s the phantom lover. This he finds easier to accept, particularly when ghostly gifts of cash start appearing daily in his coat pockets.
As this romping story line suggests, Souls of Naples prizes the comic spirit over profundity. To capitalize on De Filippo’s commedia business, a production calls for a strong-handed director to orchestrate the timing and rhythms, to manipulate the physical comedy, and to master the slippery language (translated from Neapolitan dialect by the Voice‘s Michael Feingold). Beyond that, a director has to illuminate the quasi-Pirandellian shadings of uncertainty darkening the plot; it is, after all, a play about the capacity for delusion written for Italians in the wake of the war.
In plain sight nearly 60 years later, however, is a staging realizing absolutely none of these aspects. Despite the halfhearted use of a pair of dolls in a late scene, puppet director Roman Paska pulls no strings whatsoever. Even luminaries like Turturro and Rocco Sisto often appear at sea here, fumbling to make the halting language active and searching to create character where little accrues. (Turturro gains momentum in later scenes, when his character’s full dilemma is revealed.) Part of the problem is spatial: Donna Zakowska’s drab manor awkwardly casts the piece into a pallid domestic realism from which it never emerges. This, in turn, influences the rudderless performances; left to their own devices, the company members fall into a series of languishing clichés. Apparently to semaphore “Italianness,” Turturro and others gesticulate emphatically, speak English with embarrassing accents, and flounder in comic sequences requiring a completely different physical vocabulary. Somewhere inside this house of ghosts a comedy lies immured.