Good news, single girls! Spinsters are in! Well, they’re currently fashionable on New York theater stages, at least. Hot on the (sensible) heels of Broadway’s “The Rainmaker,” in which Jayne Atkinson played a lonely bachelorette in a role immortalized on film by Katharine Hepburn, comes “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Debra Monk plays a lonely bachelorette — in a role immortalized on film by Katharine Hepburn (the movie was renamed “Summertime”). Coincidence? Probably, unless it’s a subtle attempt to provide an alternative to New York’s current model for single women, the libidinous gang from HBO’s “Sex and the City.”
Actually, Arthur Laurents’ 1952 play is probably just as sex-obsessed as the HBO series, though the subject is drenched in flattering Mediterranean light and the decorous cloak of romance. And since this is the prim and proper ’50s, our conflicted heroine doesn’t, in the end, get lucky — she gets wise, and heads back to America with her hair sadly unmussed, a store of bittersweet self-knowledge and a set of glass goblets in her suitcase.
Monk plays Leona Samish, an executive secretary on vacation in Venice looking for someone swoon-worthy to share the moonlit evenings, and perhaps something more. Leona’s frustrated longing for companionship is in pointed contrast to a host of the cozily coupled at her pensione, including a squabbling pair of elderly Americans, Mr. and Mrs. McIlhenny (Tom Aldredge and Polly Holliday), and a younger American couple, studly artist Eddie Yaeger (Adam Trese) and his pinup-girl wife June (Ana Reeder).
The sophisticated Italian proprietress of the pensione, Signora Fioria (Cigdem Onat), has her own arrangement with a longtime lover — not to mention a secret dalliance with Eddie — and even the pensione’s absent-minded maid, Giovanna, has a guy to giggle over.
Poor Leona! All she has is her gin bottle, until hope appears in the form of Renato di Rossi (Olek Krupa), a silver-haired, blunt-speaking owner of a glass shop who abruptly arrives at the pensione and forces Leona — who feigns outrage at the suggestion — to admit that she’s looking for action. The distance between Leona’s romantic hopes and the rude realities of midlife relationships are the subject of the play, which focuses with an almost merciless relish on the deflowering of Leona’s rosy dreams of romance.
Laurents pushes the pathos button rather insistently at times — there’s something almost prurient about the way he details Leona’s various humiliations and frustrations — but the play’s abundant humor gives us frequent reprieves.
Monk gives an honest, funny, often poignant performance. Director Nicholas Martin lingers daringly on the final moments of the opening scene, as Leona’s search for evening company has failed and she sits down to her dinner alone. The grim set of Monk’s mouth as she slowly chews her food, the determined concentration on her guidebook, speak volumes about the quiet misery of Leona’s life.
But just as Atkinson ran into trouble trying to add some steely undercurrents to “The Rainmaker’s” Lizzy, so does Monk run aground in emphasizing the hard edges of Leona’s pathos. In the play’s climactic scene, Leona hosts a cocktail party that turns sour when too much drink — and the suspicion that di Rossi is using her — leads Leona to lash out, cruelly spilling the beans about Eddie and Signora Fioria and a certain gondola ride.
The role of Leona was written for Shirley Booth, and her natural vulnerability must have undercut the scene’s harsh tone. Monk has a naturally hardier presence and plays the scene for all it’s worth as the eruption of a lifetime of buried sexual and emotional frustration. The result, though it may be what the author intended, is theatrically a liability. The play’s skillful but superficial characterizations and gentle comic tone can’t support such a sudden rush of raw feeling — Tennessee Williams this isn’t. The moment leaves a sour aftertaste.
Little else does, given a marvelously chosen supporting cast assembled by Martin and Lincoln Center Theater’s Daniel Swee. Holliday and Aldredge could probably perform their small roles in their sleep, but they give funny flavor to every line. Trese and Reeder make a pretty pair as the not-so-happily married youngsters, with Reeder particularly amusing as the spoiled June. Krupa is gruffly appealing as the misunderstood Di Rossi, and the production even boasts that rarest of commodities, an authentically charming, entirely authentic child actor, Sebastian Uriarte, who plays the greedy urchin Mauro with delightfully offhand truculence and just a smidgen of sweetness. His mangled Italianate versions of Americanisms sound just as funny each time around.
But the production may be most notable as an introduction to the remarkable Ms. Onat, an actress making her New York stage debut as the worldly Signora Fioria. She brings great authority and understated feeling to her performance as a woman whose tough hide has its tender fringes. Onat seems to naturally radiate Signora Fioria’s pragmatic wisdom, fermented from deep experience of life’s pleasures and pains. In fact, Laurents’ Signora Fioria seems to have aged considerably better than his Leona Samish (another humiliation!). She’s a memorable character who deserves a play of her own, as does the actress who plays her.