The walls of Mario Fratti’s apartment on West 55th St. are padded with the kind of well worn antiques, posters, and mementos that have witnessed a life in the theater. His living room window looks into the window that Tennessee Williams used to sit at in the mornings and write. They would wave to each other. When he arrived in New York in 1963 while in his twenties from L’Aquila, Italy, the theater industry was a very different place. Many of his American born contemporaries gained wider recognition for their work at a time when distrust of all things foreign was commonplace. Still Fratti has persisted, with a spry wit, and sparkling blue eyes, he is a master storyteller with a specialty for surprise endings. “When I have something to say, I must write a play,” he explains. For him the theater is a vehicle for expression of his opinion on a subject, his point of inquiry into human experience, and the most concise way he can articulate his thoughts on questions of morality.
Recently I had the pleasure of watching his latest collection of plays surrounding themes of gay identity and sexuality. Fratti’s plays are usually no more than 15-20 minutes long each. The writing is clean, efficient, and moves swiftly to dramatic revelation that turns the plot 180 degrees. This structure is well established in his numerous plays, and is the basis of his instruction to young writers. He advises them always to start with the ending, and work backwards. His language is at once timeless and contemporary. When I ask him how a man with no email and a rotary telephone can create dialogue you might hear on your morning train, he replies simply “I listen.”
Ethel’s father, Bill informs her that she has “healthy instincts” towards love: she expects to be loved and give love equally. She is too young to comprehend the need to hurt the ones we love, and the close relationship between joy and pain. Leave it to master dramatist, Mario Fratti to begin this series of four gay and sexuality themed plays with a lesson in dramatic paradox. It is this dual ability to love and hate, to hurt and protect, to attract and repel that exists in all of us, but is as yet undiscovered in many. Bill, played by Wayne Maugans, explains that “everyone is a little bit bisexual.” It is within our human nature to be constantly in flux amid a spectrum of grey.
Yet Sarah Doe Osborne as Ethel remains faithful to a black and white perspective. She insists that the actor and Bill’s former theater student, David, portrayed here by Kenneth W. Ziegler, “seemed gay” in the play that she and her father had watched that evening. Bill insists that David’s acting skill in portraying a more complex gay relationship onstage in no way undermines David’s love for Ethel. She is not convinced and neither are we.
There is an uncomfortable undertone in the room where it feels that Bill is trying to push David on his daughter. He flits around the room refilling glasses of champagne and playing cupid in a crisp pink shirt and tortoise rimmed glasses. This is a contemporary American play set in the present day, yet we this feels distinctly like an arranged marriage. David is extremely open with his intentions and professions of love to Ethel in front of her father as if he were putting on a show.
The second half of the piece delivers the quintessential Fratti plot twist (spoiler alert!). When the lights come up on Bill in David’s bed, and Ethel’s voice leaving a loving message on his answering machine, we understand that a trade has been negotiated. The danger of this precarious arrangement hangs in the air like a wide net that threatens to drop at any moment and ensnare them in their post-coital lair. David observes “the best moments are always on the verge of danger.” Fratti hits a nerve with his recognition of another kind of duality that exists in each person and within each relationship. Love is also violence; in some cases more than others.
Employing a signature box set that Fratti insists upon so as not to disturb the dramatic flow of the play with cumbersome scene changes, director, Stephan Morrow begins the second movement out of the shadow of the first one. Otto, a victim of A.I.D.S. stands at the foot of the same bed that housed David and Bill’s tryst. Paul Caiola fully inhabits his infected body, breathing shallowly and gently swaying back and forth as if the draft in the room were moving his frail frame. Jason Beaubein as Evan enters the dimply lit room after speaking with the doctors and he carries the weight of his bad news in his shoulders. Otto suspects this with a nihilistic disdain and presses Evan to reveal the amount of time the doctors have given him to live.
Again Fratti weaves the thread of love and violence into the relationship. Evan wrestles with his decision to be completely honest with Otto, and jeopardize his short amount of remaining quality life. Fratti asks us if the truth is always the best medicine, especially when the truth is that the best medicine costs the hospital, and in turn them, $2000 per day to stay alive. The two actors are totally in sync with one another and they appear to pick up on each other’s thoughts. They are real and sincere in their characters and resist the urge to delve into melodrama. This kind of muted routine tragedy has a much greater impact on the audience.
Dina and Alba
The third wave of dramas comes to us in the form of a pair of women lovers. Strong casting choices by Morrow in Jennifer Laine Williams as Dina and Melanie Rose Wilson as Alba allowed these two women to escape the stigma and prejudice associated with lesbian stereotypes. They are referred to as “Juno-esque,” both in their physical power, and aggressive inquisitiveness. The actresses filled out these two characters with complexity and grace, allowing the greater issues of trust, satisfaction, and the fundamental core of human chemistry to come to the surface. At times, we feel voyeuristic peering into the intimate moments of someone else’s love affair. As Dina accurately observes “love is always mysterious.” This holds true whether you’re in it or watching it. Rational thoughts become tinted with magic and blind faith.
Fratti returns to the concept of fluid sexuality through the discussion that ensues after Dina mentions her ex-boyfriend. Alba wants to know “could you still make love to a man?” They are both confident woman. Fratti boldly suggests the Freudian reasons why women are still turned on by the paternal protection of men. As the two of them struggle to put on their pantyhose, they juxtapose the world that they both agree is still largely patriarchal. Alba presses Dina to confess her ex-boyfriends ulterior motive by coming back into her life. For a moment, the boundaries of gender and sexuality are visible, and we are able to look past them and recognize a classic jealous lover’s inquisition. In this case the issue runs deeper. What Alba is really after is an explanation why women need men, why Dina craves the safety of her former man, and why she could never be the “fortress” that her lover requires.
The final play steps outside the theme of homosexuality, but does return to the threat of sexually transmitted disease, namely A.I.D.S. and how it could be used as powerful leverage in certain situations. The victim in this scenario was a timid man in his forties, with a Woody Allen-esque anxiety and hunched physicality. This casting of Michael Sirow made the character nearly comical and simultaneously pathetic. I found it hard to believe that he would be the type to follow who he believes to be a prostitute to her home. With her silky smooth words, and feigned interest in his family life, the woman, played by Victoria Watson, expertly lures him into a baited trap, then watches as he forfeits his money into a locked piggy bank. The final plot twist is two pronged. Not only does she repel him in the final moments by wielding the threat of disease like a kiss of death, but when her husband emerges celebratory, we realize that from the beginning she has had a different interpretation what it means to “turn tricks.”
Though not obvious, there are several clues in the dialogue that indicate the age of this play, which in fact was originally written in 1978. For example, the woman charges “$25 for the first time, and $20 for the second.” She uses the “n word” to refer to her former clientel
e, and refers to “commies” or a “foreigners” as types that deserve of punishment. Though the price of services and the derogatory jargon has changed since then, the other variables of this potentially dangerous situation remain unchanged: threat of disease, the significant other, and entrapment.
Overall, the pieces moved well and connected to one another in the end thanks to the careful moment to moment work by the actors that enabled them to pull out every nuance. Subtlety and ensemble synchronization in Morrow’s direction allowed the actors to get out of the way of the story. Thanks to this, we didn’t feel like we were watching an acting class, which seems to be an epidemic in other off-off Broadway houses. Besides giving the story a physical foundation, the actors managed to transform the single bed into four different ones, and allow us to travel, as if by magic carpet ride, into four different homes. Fratti carefully curates the show, placing four plays consecutively that flow together and unite to form a greater synthesis, a kind of overtone of the dramatic event that makes you truly understand what it means to have a special night at the theater.
Through his plays you can read his true journey to the heart of human experience. His ambition is toward greater empathy, broader understanding, and engaged dialogue. Next time you go see a play by Mario Fratti, pay attention to the beginning, and see if you can predict the end. Even if you do, you’ll be hooked until the final black out.
Mario Fratti’s Quartet: Actors, A.I.D.S, Dina and Alba, and Piggy Bank play at Theatre For a New City, 155 1st Avenue, NYC. June 2-19 For tickets call (212) 254- 1109