Playwright Mario Fratti had enviable access to legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s rehearsal process when Fratti was a journalist in the late 1950s, a time when Fellini was conceiving and filming one of his most famous films, La Dolce Vita. In Six Passionate Women, the fanciful comedy Fratti made of this experience, the many women in the filmmaker’s life band together for revenge. The play is receiving a revival at Theater for the New City through October 26.
In the funny and well-acted first act, we meet Fellini-like movie director Nino (Dennis Parlato), who has come to hate movies because it’s all been done before and he can’t come up with a groundbreaking new idea. As he seeks and fails to find inspiration from bed-hopping, we meet the variety of colorfully drawn women in his life.
One actress he’s sleeping with, Sonia (Giulia Bisinella), plays the nymphette. Another actress he’s sleeping with, Valia (Donna Vivino in a standout performance), takes a motherly role among others. There’s also his wife (Coleen Sexton), her best friend (Laine Rettmer), his assistant Franca (a delightful turn by Carlotta Brentan), and, fatefully, a rich American widow who arrives with all the money Nino needs to produce his next film with, supposedly, no strings attached.
Alas, Fratti’s intriguing concept of having the women manipulate the unfaithful Nino into making a feminist film in spite of himself falls by the wayside. In the second act the women have instead begun making their own movie by secretly filming Nino in compromising positions. The idea of getting revenge against the famous director for “stealing” their lives for his films is an interesting one, but Fratti drops that ball and turns the story into one of simple revenge for womanizing.
At least, I think that’s the motive. What’s really behind the women’s actions in the second half of the play never became fully clear to me as the concise but confused script flailed in several directions. Meanwhile, all along, a secondary problem grew larger: Parlato’s appealingly gruff portrayal conspires with the story itself make of Nino not the despicable figure we’d like to see get his comeuppance, but a likable rogue in spite of his womanizing and lack of emotional maturity. A big part of that comes from the fact that while the women in Nino’s life might resent him sometimes, they still like him, even love him. So the whole revenge theme just doesn’t carry its weight.
Nino’s not just a thief of lives. We’re also told, in a severely improbable sideline, that he routinely steals his friend William’s (Kevin Sebastian) screenplays, makes them into movies, and doesn’t credit William, and that in spite of this the much younger William remains Nino’s best friend. Never mind that there’s no “friend chemistry” between Parlato and Sebastian (who is energetic but not convincing as Nino’s co-conspirator in womanizing). People do steal concepts and even scripts in real life, but repeatedly? From a “best friend”? With no repercussions?
The old-style, somewhat Alan Ayckbourn-like qualities of Fratti’s writing – a play with an actual idea and a cockeyed plot, plus Fratti’s own skill at creating amusingly exaggerated characters – is refreshing in the first act, as charmingly old-fashioned as the manual typewriter Nino clacks away on – though the latter sits amid a pile of anachronistic cordless telephones. Alas, like those phones might, the story dissolves into frustrating static.