Quick! Name the Ten Best Plays of 1953-54, as chosen by Louis Kronenberger in the Burns Mantle Yearbook of that season.
Well, if you’re good at this stuff, you’ll recall such smashes as The Teahouse of the August Moon, and Tea and Sympathy. If you’re very good, you’ll remember The Golden Apple and In the Summer House as well. But you’d have to be extraordinary to recollect Alfred Hayes’ The Girl on the Via Flaminia, which is getting a rare revival Off-Broadway this month.
Indeed, Hayes’ adaptation of his own novel might have been the tenth of the plays that Kronenberger chose. For in the book’s introduction, the editor does brand the work “episodic in method and uneven in effect. In an era of really accomplished playwriting, its weaknesses might seem all too glaring.”
Of course, he follows that assessment with “In an era such as ours, they are decidedly pardonable.” Throughout American theatrical history, those living through their seasons are convinced they’re enduring terrible ones. Mind you, with the ’50s only 4.5 years old, Kronenberger had already enjoyed the aforementioned plays, as well as The Member of the Wedding, The Cocktail Party, Come Back, Little Sheba, The County Girl, Bell, Book, and Candle, Guys and Dolls, The Rose Tattoo, The Fourposter, I Am a Camera, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, The Crucible, Picnic, and Wonderful Town. And he was complaining about craft?
Kronenberger did go on to justify his choice of Girl by saying that there was “a lashing force in much of the writing; more, there is truth -- and even a sense of tragic truthfulness in the character of Mr. Hayes’ heroine.” She’s Lisa, a young woman barely out of her teens, who has the misfortune of growing up in Italy in 1945. While she and her countrymen welcomed the United States Army when it came to liberate the country from the Germans, she and they now feel humiliated whenever they see an American solider. Need they be constantly reminded that their land of erratic electricity can’t compete with a country that’s been able to put a bowl’s worth of soup into a sliver of a package? Nevertheless, when her friends call and tell her that Robert, an American soldier is “lonely for company,” the very hungry Lisa decides to take advantage of his largesse. Maybe he’ll buy her a meal with meat in it.
Robert’s charm is considerable, but none of it works on her. Or as Kronenberger wittily put it, “(she) denounces him at length with a G.I. Bill of Wrongs.” Still, because he’s attracted to Lisa and feels protective, Robert invites her to live in the room he’s renting from the Pulcinis. Of course they’ll have to say they’re married, because you couldn’t ‘live in sin’ in those days. Lisa doesn’t like the idea, but where else can she go? What else can she do?
Easier said than done. When Antonio, the Pulcinis’ grown son, derides the Americans, Lisa finds herself defending them, in a small attempt to protect her honor. Telling him that she really loves her ‘husband’ makes her pretty miserable.
Dealing with Antonio on any level is difficult. The young man is still very much smarting for his country’s military defeat. Not only will he not accept Robert’s chocolate (his mother does, though), but he also won’t shake the soldier’s hand. One scene has him lustfully looking at Robert’s Camels, but then opting to smoke an Italian brand. He admits they’re not as good -- “but,” he says, “they’re ours.”
Despite feeling guilty at what she sees as a small betrayal of her country, Lisa stays with Robert. That decision, sad to say, will impact the rest of her life. The play’s final scene between the two make clear why Kronenberger had to put the work in his Best Plays annual.
And there were some valid themes here. You can’t make people love you. You can’t expect people to be grateful forever, that they have a pride that must be addressed, too.
Jose Quintero’s staging of The Girl on the Via Flaminia was produced by and at the Circle-in-the-Square on Feb. 9, 1954, and was doing well there -- until March 21, when a fire marshall condemned the place because of violations. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Girl moved to the 48th Street Theatre on April 5, and stayed till season’s end for a total of 111 performances -- a not-bad-at all run for a drama in those days. (In THESE days, for that matter.) Especially when you consider that not one of the cast of 12 (yes, 12) was a box office name. Leo Penn played Robert and Betty Miller was Lisa. Nuff said?
Now -- why do I bring up The Girl on the Via Flaminia 43 years after the fact? Because it’s getting a very good off-off-Broadway revival right now (through June 28) at the Producers Club Theatre, 358 West 44th Street. ‘We’re selling out most performances,’ cries director Kevin G. Shinnick, who heads the Dr. Guffy Theater Company.
Well, to be fair, that the house accommodates about three dozen people might have something to do with that. You know how we’re always hearing that ‘there are no producers today’? That only 36 could be seated in a ‘Producers Club’ seems to be yet another way of proving that point.
But seeing a play in a house this tiny enhances this kitchen-sink drama. Needless to say, there’s no amplification, so the conversation is not at all theatrical, but natural. When Robert takes out his wallet, you can see that the money changing hands is real. You can see the scar on one of the supporting actress’s arm, and though you know that it really belongs to her and not her character, it’s still a nice metaphor for what a young Italian woman has endured -- and survived. That’s the type of thing you’d only get in a small house -- one so small, that when there was a knock on the door and no one went immediately to get it, I felt so much a part of the action that I almost got up to open it myself.
Sitting this close, you even get the extra benefit of smelling what happens. When Mr. Pulcini sliced an apple. When Lisa’s friend Nina put on her nail polish. When that match Robert lights for his cigarette went out. (Warning: The Girl on the Via Flaminia may not be for those who fear second-hand smoke. In this theater, you’re going to get some whenever anyone exhales his Camel.)
Still, you may say, ‘Why do I want to see a drama that’s so dated?’ Well, that’s one way of putting it. But history is ‘dated,’ too, isn’t it? And we study that to learn, don’t we?
That’s the fascinating thing about visiting a play like The Girl on the Via Flaminia. We see what was on people’s minds in 1954. Remember, we’re talking about a scant nine years after the war ended. If there were a play about the Bush-Dukakis election of 1988, wouldn’t it seem like a very recent event? So something as life-changing as World War II still must have had great ramifications less than a decade later.
And The Girl must have had something, for Hayes even got a movie sale from his novel. Ironically enough, the film version (entitled Act of Love) open the very same week as the play. Here, Kirk Douglas played Robert, someone named Dany Robin was Lisa, and no less than a young Brigitte Bardot appeared in a small role, three years before she became a household name via And God Created Woman, the potboiler of the decade.
Shinnick’s cast holds its own against any competition. As Robert, John Stanici has late ’40s-early ’50s movie-star looks, but a wonderful sensitivity, too. As Lisa, Jane Wilson is as cold as an unfrosted cannoli, an Italian Ninotchka. But she lets us see the blazing hurt underneath in a most subtle way.
By the way, I went to my many theatrical encyclopedias to learn about the Dr. Guffy for whom this company was named. Nothing in any of them. I tried my general encyclopedias. Nothing there, either. So I went to a bookstore and checked a medical encyclopedia. Still nothing.
I called Shinnick. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I once wrote an article about Robert Quarry, an actor who had appeared at the Guthrie. Though I typed in ‘Guthrie,’ when the piece was printed, it somehow came out that he’d worked at the Dr. Guffy Theatre. Quarry was good-natured about it, but he never let me forget that there IS no Dr. Guffy Theater Company.
Shinnick decided the only way to silence Quarry’s guff was to start a Dr. Guffy Theater Company. If he’s going to keep reviving forgotten Best Plays, I’m going to continue to be glad he did.
-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com