"Nothing's sexier than obsession," Frank Langella once told me. I think he was talking about Amadeus, but it may have been Dracula. It works for both, and it's the throbbing prime-mover of Passion, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine 1994 Tony winner about a girl who won't say no.
"Loving you is not a choice," she sings to the object of her affections, "it's who I am."
"Loving You," like "Send In the Clowns," was one of those 11th-hour show-savers that Sondheim threw in to clarify the behavior of a rather complicated heroine. Her name is Fosca, and he found her in "Passione d'amore," a 1981 Italian film by Ettore Scola. She's an unattractive, sickly recluse who takes a shine to Giorgio, a dashing army captain in a remote garrison in 19th-century Italy. Beside the unwavering intensity of her ardor, his beautiful, married mistress back in Milan, Clara, who's not about to leave home and hearth for him, soon fades to black.
In the cast of 12 that director John Doyle rallied for Passion's first New York revival — Off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company's home, Feb. 8-April 7 — there are only two women: Judy Kuhn as Fosca and Melissa Errico as Clara. Ryan Silverman has the undivided attention of at least one of them. This is not Kuhn's first Fosca. Previously she played the part in 2002 in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, along with Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker.
"I've never come back to a role before," Kuhn confesses, "so it's going to be an interesting journey. There are obviously things that I learned the first time that I want to hang on to, but I want to come to this completely new and start the process over again. John Doyle is a very different director than Eric Schaeffer was. I'm also ten years older, ten years more experienced — hopefully, ten years more skilled and wiser. I can bring a lot of new things to it — things you hadn't noticed before."
She has come back with spyglass in hand. "In some ways, in playing her, you have to be a bit of a detective because there are so many mysteries about her — about what ails her, about the nature of her behavior and what motivates it. I think what's interesting about her is that her impulses and needs and desires are very universal. All of us can recognize ourselves in her. She is desperately isolated and lonely, and I think those are all things that people can really empathize with."
Errico is delighted that the role of Clara finally gets her back to her Italian roots. "Yes," she says, running her hand across a wild tangle of pitch-black hair, "all this hair is invited to the show. Off-Broadway style: we don't wear wigs. They cast me for my hair. I'm cheaper than buying a wig for some straight-haired redhead." The real thing that connects her to the role is the one thing that disconnects her from Giorgio. "What draws me to the part — and what I have to bring to it — is something I didn't remember when I first saw the show: Clara is a mother. She has a small child. I have three. I'm at that place in life where I'm using my maturity and sense of responsibility. [Clara is] having an affair because she's lonely in her marriage, but she's not able to leave her family life. This responsibility to the child keeps her from completely loving Giorgio as Fosca does — unedited, unnegotiated.
"I hope the audience feels Clara's loneliness and what it is to be a mother and still have a sexual self. It's a complicated process, though. I've already told some of my 'mom friends' that I'm playing a mother who's having an affair, and nearly all of them said, 'Oh, I can't wait to come' because people have these secret desires. Motherhood really makes them secret because you have a love and an instinct for that child above your own needs."
Because Clara and Giorgio are separated geographically for most of the play, their love scenes turn into love letters. There is a particularly sensual passage that Errico says she looks forward to singing every night:
"I close my eyes, imagining that you are there,
Imagining your fingers touching mine,
Imagining our room,
The bed, the secrecy, the world outside,
Your mouth on mine…"
Absence, it seems, makes the heart hot and bothered. If that's not passion, what is?
(This feature appears in the February 2013 Off-Broadway edition of Playbill magazine.)