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is a two-character biographical play in which those long-departed "sacred
monsters" -- Tennessee Williams and Anna Magnani --return to strut and fret for
another two and a half hours on the stage. Not only to those of their generation do they
remain larger-than-life figures of vivid intensity, as theatrical in their personal lives
as in their art. There is a distinguished film record of Magnani's half-century movie
career and the legacy of Tennessee's distinctive voice lives in his great body of dramatic
Tennessee and La Magnani had fallen from public grace at the end of
their careers and both knew it. Tennessee doggedly kept writing despite the increasingly
hostile reception his post-1960s plays received. Magnani appeared in fewer and fewer
films, her last major appearance being a small role in Fellini's Roma (1972). The archetypal Earth Mother she created was
appropriated by a younger generation led by such stars as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida,
and Silvana Mangano. Now, a generation later, Tennesee's reputation has been restored and
he has become an iconic figure with whom the performance literate are well familiar. But
Magnani has not recovered the mythic international aura she radiated at the time she won
the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the 1955 film version of the play Tennessee
wrote for her, The Rose Tattoo.
Much of the impact of Roman Nights, a well-crafted play that
Franco Alessandro has constructed out of the turbulent but remarkably solid
quarter-century relationship between Williams and Magnani, will therefore depend upon what
the viewer brings to it in knowledge and experience of its protagonists. The play is
scrupulous in its biographical accuracy. When direct quotes are used (mainly from
they are attributed in the spoken text. Familiar images and phrases from Williams' plays
("trying to find in motion what was lost in space") are interspersed with other
dialogue. Every one and every thing talked about is based on meetings and incidents that
actually occurred; Roberto Rossellini, Carlo Ponti, Vittorio de Sica, and others were, of
course, famous contemporaries. But playwright D'Alessandro anxiously points out in the
play's program that this is not docudrama, that this is a work of imaginative
fiction in which the dialogue is invented. But so Dybbuk-like is the author's possession
of the souls of his beloved protagonists that the characters have the ring of historical
accuracy, right down to Williams distinctive braying laugh.
The play's chronological three acts have a tragic rise and fall.
Act I, the Rise, moves from their initial meeting in Rome in 1949 through the
cementing of their relationship by Tennessee's decision to write a play for Magnani. Act
II, the Conquest, finds the pair in 1956-57 at the height of their international
celebrity. Act III, the Fall, traces fame's fickle departure in the remaining years.
Equal space is allotted to personal and esthetic matters. Magnani freely reveals her
turbulent love-life: her failed early marriage, her liaison with actor Massimo Serato
which produced a sickly child rejected by his father who Magnani defiantly gave her family
name and life-long devotion, and. above all, her all-consuming passion for the
unpredictable genius, Roberto Rossellini, who directed her breakthrough film Open City and then abandoned her for Ingrid Bergman only to
return sporadically in later years.
Tennessee was also an impulsive romantic, and Anna was very fond and
protective of his one true love, Frankie Merlo, to whom Tennessee was not always faithful.
Unlike many of Tennessee's friends she would not indulge his bad habits, his infidelities
and, in later years, his drinking and drug-taking. When ever-loyal Frankie died
prematurely, the bond between the divas intensified. Tennesee shared with her painful
details about his origins, particularly his abiding guilt from failing to prevent the
lobotomization of his beloved sister Rose.
The play has much to say about their artistic bond. However ego-driven,
both monsters were serious artists. Indeed. their relationship had begun when Williams, in
Rome to cast the Italian version of A Streetcar Named Desire, went looking for
the actress whose scalding performance had stupefied him -- and the world-- in Open
City He did not succeed in landing Magnani for the role of Blanche, but, meeting her
at a party, he determined to write a play for her nonetheless. When The Rose Tattoo
was finally finished Magnani would not abandon her hospitalized polio-stricken son for
Broadway. But she did make the film and received her Oscar.
At least two other Williams' heroines have deep roots in Anna's
real-life character: the martyred Lady in the much-revised play Orpheus Descending, which under the title The Fugitive Kind (1959) cast her memorably with Marlon Brando
under Sidney Lumet's inspired direction of the film version; and Princess K. in Sweet Bird of Youth. When Rossellini periodically left her,
Magnani settled for a series of younger lovers a la Chance Wayne.
There's enough material here for a whole series of plays. Perhaps
D'Alessansro tries to cram in too much large living, but who can blame him? There's so
much that continues to fascinate in this pas de deux between icons whose bad traits are
decisively outweighed by love, integrity and, above all, the passion to persevere.
To have to play such outsized, still vivid persons is no easy task, and
it cannot be reported that Franca Barchiesi as Magnani and Roy Miller as Tennessee are
fully up to the job. Both actors share some degree of physical resemblance with their
historical models. But emotional rather than physical verisimilitude is the essential
problem here. Few actors or writers can summon--as did the protagonists--the ability to
reveal all totally. Nonetheless, under the circumstances of a competent but far from
innovative production, the current actors do remarkably well. Initial misgivings yield to
growing acceptance of their portraits --an audacious challenge honestly and respectfully
New York, September 14,
- Gerald Rabkin