Souls of Naples
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 13, 2005
There are things in life that are real only because we believe them to be. In many ways this is the essence of the theatrical experience. When we go to the theatre we suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to be transported into the world of the play. This unfortunately did not happen to me at Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Eduardo De Filippo’s Souls of Naples (newly translated here by Michael Feingold).
The story goes like this. In post-World-War-II Naples, a man named Pasquale (John Turturro), and his young wife, Maria (Francesca Vannucci), move into a 17th century palazzo that is said to be haunted. He has been allowed to move in rent-free, with the stipulation that he must stay there for more than six months in an effort to dispel the rumors of ghosts. These supposed ghosts are the restless souls of lovers who were caught in the act of their infidelity and summarily walled in alive and left to die.
In what appears to be history repeating itself, Maria is having an affair with a wealthy man named Alfredo (Juan Carlos Hernandez). When Pasquale catches him in the house, Alfredo pretends to be a ghost by freezing in a silly pose—and Pasquale buys it. Alfredo and Maria continue their affair; all the while Alfredo sends lavish gifts of furniture and other items to the house to try to persuade Pasquale that the "ghosts" favor him. The ending is bittersweet and is certainly the most satisfying part of the play.
I enjoyed the theme of a man who refuses to see what he doesn’t want to see. Pasquale is terrified of self assessment. He knows very well that he is on the brink of losing his pretty young wife and of falling into financial troubles, but he’s so bent on attaining success that he thinks so long as he’s on this streak of good luck, why jinx it.
But De Filippo never cracks the surface of his own convention to reveal the emotional core of the play—at least, not until it is too late. John Turturro is certainly good as Pasquale, doing the best he can with a character that doesn’t truly blossom until the very end. Turturro delivers his final monologue with such deep felt honesty that I finally began to care about his character, but as I’ve said already it was too little too late.
Director Roman Paska presides over a production that is glaringly uneven. I think the trouble stems from the misalignment of the farcical style of the play and the mostly naturalistic style of the acting. There were a few performers besides Turturro who piqued my interest, all in smaller roles—Max Casella, Rocco Sisto, and Aida Turturro—but the rest of the cast left me feeling unsatisfied.
Another thing that is uneven is the accents. I could not tell if I was supposed to be in Italy or in Bensonhurst. Also, there are two puppets that inexplicably appear in the middle of the play. They have no lines and they barely even interact with other characters (except their puppeteers) so it seemed as if they were transplanted from another production.
Still another thing that I found to be missing from this production is humor. I giggled a couple of times but overall I found myself unengaged by the listless pace and understated punch lines.
The technical elements of this production are decent. John T. La Barbera’s original score is good though it is used rather sparingly. However, Donna Zakowska’s set design did not make me feel that I was in a 17th century palazzo.
There is a flood of honesty at the end of Souls of Naples that almost makes it worthwhile. Ironically, one of the characters says that the honesty has released him from his curse… well, I felt the same way.