NEW YORK, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- A new Off Broadway play brings to life Tennessee Williams' treasured "Roman Nights," not with fictional heroine of his novella, "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," but with the very real actress, Anna Magnani.
The American playwright's friendship with the Italian film star lasted nearly 25 years and was one of the most meaningful relationships in Williams' life. He wrote several plays with her in mind as leading lady but she appeared only in the film version of his play, "The Rose Tattoo," for which she won an Oscar, and a film titled "The Fugitive Kind," based on his play, "Orpheus Descending."
Franco D'Alessandro, making his Off Broadway debut as a playwright with "Roman Nights" at the tiny new DR2 Theater, has captured effectively the chemistry between Williams, a professed homosexual, and Magnani, noted for her heterosexual appetites, and has found two fine actors, Roy Miller and Franca Barchiesi, to play his famous protagonists.
Barchiesi, prettier than Magnani and more chicly feminine, gives a particularly endearing performance as a woman with a big heart, strong opinions, and tart tongue. Miller, a Williams look-alike, catches the playwright's complex moods and needy personality with seeming ease, but he does not make the playwright as winningly charming as he could be in real life.
There is a prickly edge to D'Allesandro's Williams that Miller tends to emphasize, making him seem unbending and less sympathetic than Magnani and putting the play slightly out of balance. But Barchiesi's powerful performance carries "Roman Nights" despite its flaws and makes it a memorable theatrical experience, especially for Williams and Magnani fans.
Although there are only two characters onstage, many peripheral characters are discussed and sometimes addressed by Williams and Magnani as though they were present physically. These include Rose Williams, the institutionalized sister that the playwright adores, film director Roberto Rossellini, Magnani's true love, Frank Merlo, Williams' longtime companion, and actor Massimo Serato, one of Magnani's lovers.
Also central to the play's emotional content is Luca Magnani, the actress' love child by Serato. The boy's crippling bout with polio brings out protective "she wolf" instincts in his mother, just as Rose Williams's schizophrenia and lobotomy have caused exaggerated protective instincts in her brother and inspired him to create the character of Laura in "The Glass Menagerie."
"Roman Nights" takes the odd couple through the years of their burgeoning fame, international celebrity and finally into their declining professional years when they increasingly sense that they are becoming irrelevant to the changing cultural scene.
Williams was driven to distraction by critics who wrote about him as a talent in decline, increasingly reliant on homoerotic subject matter. Magnani was infuriated when the only role offers she got were those for older women, and she was particularly insulted by the suggestion that she play Sophia Loren's mother in the film "Two Women" (Loren took the mother's role instead and it won her an Oscar).
The play is rich in reminiscences about Loren and her husband, film producer Carlo Ponti, author Marlon Brando, directors Vittorio DeSica and Luchino Visconti, Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford and author Gore Vidal who introduced Williams to Magnani in Rome in 1948.
Magnani complains about the lovers who have betrayed her and her fears for her crippled son's future. Williams tries to justify his numerous disloyalties to his beloved "Frankie" Merlo. They cling to each other and support each other but are not above having some showdown arguments when they disagree. "Roman Nights" is, in essence, a play about the kind of friendship that comes along only a few times in any lifetime, if at all.
Director Bick Goss has conquered most of the difficulties in moving his characters around on the DR2 Theater's miniscule stage so that the action isn't too static, as any conversation piece is likely to be.
Michael Schweikardt's slightly raised platform and rose-covered balustrade suggest the roof terrace of Magnani's palazzo apartment in Rome and a depressed side area represents Williams' study in New York. Both Pamela Snyder's costumes and original music by Yanni Fotiadis mirror the mid 20th century setting of the show that ends in 1973, the year of Magnani died of cancer.
Williams sent 20 dozen roses to Magnani's funeral in memory of their parting words whenever they met, "See you at 20," promising a rendezvous on the actress's terrace that evening at 8 o'clock.