The play “Imperfect Love: A Serious Comedy in Two Acts” by Brandon Cole is now playing at the Connelly Theater in the Lower East Side of New York City. It started on January 25th and runs until February 18th – just in time for Valentine’s Day. The play is put on by the Left Wing Limited theater company, which is closely associated with the famous actor John Turturro. The play tells the story of writers’ block. More precisely, writers’ block as a consequence of scathing criticism and defeat. This play is historical fiction based on the love affair between great Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), here played by Cristina Spina as a character named Della Rosa, and the poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), here played by Rodrigo Lopresti. This production was directed by Michael di Jiacomo, with sets and costumes by Oscar-winner Gianni Quaranta.
Gabriela is a playwright who’s latest reviews he reads in the play’s first scenes with his girlfriend, who is his muse and lead actress Rosa. Gabriela’s latest play it seems is a dud. Rosa tries to help Gabriela change the last lines of his play, but Gabriela is too stubborn. When actors Marco, Beppo, and Domenica show up, the company finds out the newspaper criticisms were fatal, and the theater company’s owner will fire the playwright and the two actors who play clown-servants – Marco and Beppo – but will keep Domenica and Rosa. This leads the clown-servant Beppo to stage a love affair between Gabriela and another actress, and hijinks ensue.
This play is set in 1899 Italy, which was a high point in theater before movie films became popular in the 1900’s. Its references to classical Italian theater, as in commedia de l’arte, are recognized in its clown-servant characters. Marco plays a depressive and sullen clown, which is a reference to Pierrot, which is known as a white clown. The key to a Pierrot character, that is, sad clowns in general, is they are sad when they should be happy. This makes the character endearing, because generally people, whether depressed or happy, still want to be happy. There’s a comedy from the contradiction, but also potentially tragedy, because the character doesn’t get what he wants. This often makes a Pierrot character a proxy for the audience. Against Pierrot is a Harlequin character, Beppo, who represents both mischief and problem solving. This character archetype is who Harlequin in the movie “Suicide Squad” was based on, and regardless of the dissimilarities, the key things in common are the sense of mischief and the willingness to play inside of the game, whether she’s playing by the rules or not.
On a different note, there’s a question of what the purpose of using a play-within-a-play structure is; that the play is about a playwright who writes plays. In “Imperfect Love,” this means using a theater company who are talking about putting on shows. This is similar to Hugh Jackman’s 2017 movie, “The Greatest Showman,” where the characters are perpetually psyching themselves up to put on a show. Usually, the play-within-a-play is where the characters will stage a story or a scene from another play, and indeed the characters do this in “Imperfect Love” in the first act, where Domenico and Rosa act out a love scene from a previous play. The larger play is about a theater company, and so the latter is just a bit larger in scope than the former. This larger scope creates a certain kind of remove in the viewer and a certain type of objectivity. While play-within-a-play narratives are something like a staple of contemporary theater, it’s not especially clear that there was a break from Shakespeare, who often engaged in meta-plays, ironies, and nesting dolls.
The height, or the low point of this trend might have been Charlie Kauffman’s “Synechdoche” with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whereupon the main character is a playwright who, instead of facing his problems or his writer’s block, simply makes another narrative within the previous narrative until he accidentally dies as an old lady. The movie’s summary is funny in the retelling, obnoxious on the watching, and too close to home considering Hoffman’s real-life escapism. Thankfully, “Imperfect Love” does a lot better here.
Personally, I’m not so sure emotions can be handled with kid gloves. That is, when I personally feel empathy for characters, I don’t feel a separate “I feel” in the context of ‘this situation is an act’ or ‘this situation is a lie’. I don’t feel a secondary remove because I don’t feel any remove. Let’s say an enemy comes to me with a lie, or with bad intentions. I personally get so busy with skepticism that I don’t really empathize with the liar. This is existentialist philosophy, and a little bit of empirical psychology, and this is about as far as I’m going to go down this road here.
“Imperfect Love” is an excellent production based on an excellent play by Brandon Cole, now playing at the Connelly Theater at 220 East 4th Street in New York City and it’s not to be missed!