Most people, by the time they reach their 80s, are happy to stop working, or at least scale back their activities, reveling in a mode of relaxation and retirement that is well-deserved and richly earned.
But Mario Fratti is not most people.
Instead, he is, at 85, as active as he's ever been. He's been working professionally in theatre in America since I was 2 years old, and he makes me look like a slacker. He's the great theatre polymath: playwright, critic, teacher, and advocate of drama that's reflective politically, socially, and sexually of the way people actually behave. He's as prolific a writer as exists in the theatre today, and one of the most generous, helping artists at every stage of their career get better at what they do. He's been enormously supportive of my work, especially NYTE Small Press, which published a collection of 28 of his shorter pieces, Unpredictable Plays, in 2007, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. (We just talked to Mario on the phone a few days ago and he promises another collection for his 90th.)
Fratti's oeuvre spans 50 years and includes landmarks like the musical Nine (for which he wrote the translation from the Italian) and The Cage, which premiered off-Broadway in 1966 and has been seen in literally dozens of countries since. The distinguished theater critic/anthologist Stanley Richards wrote, "As a dramatist, Fratti eschews the obscure and the enigmatic. A principled advocate of directness and immediate communication in the theater, Fratti's plays are governed by a fine and firm creative hand." Another of America's great theater critics, Richard L. Coe, wrote, "His plays are strong, cogent and tightly knit. This, perhaps, explains Fratti's particular gift of choosing a dramatic situation, keeping it alive with sharp dialogue, drawing unequivocal characters and driving to a point."
Last season, he had a quartet of gay-themed plays performed at Theater for the New City, helmed by director Stephan Morrow; and also a new one-act called Obama 44, a murder mystery about a woman who was an ardent supporter of our current president, which debuted at La MaMa. Fratti's plays have titles like Terrorist and Beata, the Pope's Daughter and Che and porno that indicate the breadth of his curiosity about the world and passion for ideas of all stripes. Probably his most performed recent work is Iraq (Blindness), which is a short, stunning drama about a returning veteran who brings tragic (if not entirely surprising) news to the family of a fallen comrade-in-arms.
Two of the hallmarks of Fratti's work are their candor about sexuality and their unexpected endings. These are certainly among the attributes I prize about his plays. The former is based, I think, in his Italian heritage—even though Fratti has lived and worked in New York City since the early '60s (he taught at Hunter College for many years), his sensibility is decidedly post-war European, by which I mean that he lacks the provincialism and puritanical streak that we often find in American writers, and his world view is informed by a sense of internationalism and multi-culturalism that comes from having spent so many years in an adopted country--and so much working time, to this day, abroad: Fratti travels wherever his work takes him, to Europe, Asia, and South America, and he is constantly delighted by the reception his plays receive in countries not his own.
As for the endings, well, that's the Fratti signature. He told me once that the key to writing a great play is to know the ending up front. "Come up with a great ending," he says, "and the rest will easily follow."Published on October 10, 2012