Mira Sorvino doesn’t bare much flesh in “Naked,” but she reveals plenty nonetheless. Nicholas Wright’s new version of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 play proved a West End hit for the Almeida Theater Co. with Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, and it now serves as an intriguing vehicle for Oscar winner Sorvino’s return to the New York stage after several years of film success.
A rediscovered classic it isn’t, certainly — even in Wright’s crisp adaptation, its dialogue meanders oddly from the melodramatic to the cryptic, and director John Rando’s production sometimes stumbles accordingly. Audiences will probably be puzzled by Pirandello’s obstreperous combination of earthy comedy, high drama and existential reflections. But Sorvino, looking surprisingly willowy and ethereal, gives the Classic Stage Co. production a vitally tender, affecting center. In the lead role of a damaged young woman whose wayward life only seems real when it’s described in the newspapers, she gives a delicate, quietly captivating performance.
As the play begins, Sorvino’s Ersilia Drea steps gingerly into a decaying Roman boarding room, the shabby home of noted novelist Ludovico Nota (Daniel Benzali), expertly realized in tired-looking tones by set designer Derek McLane. Nota has come to Ersilia’s rescue after reading about her suicide attempt in the paper, offering shelter to the former nanny fleeing a scandal involving the death of a child in her care. Still feeling the effects of the poison she ingested, Sorvino’s Ersilia has the uncertain, delicate gait and the drained color of someone still unsure whether she’s awake or dreaming, and indeed she mysteriously laments her own lack of existence. Nota, who has fashioned his own fictive saga for his new charge, responds, “How could I invent you if you didn’t exist?” — Pirandellian irony at its purest.
Also typically Pirandellian is the manner in which all the details of Ersilia’s tragedy, and by extension her personality, are revealed to be subject to a variety of interpretations. The newspaper reports told of a victimized young woman abandoned by her naval officer fiancée and then fired by a vengeful employer after an accident she had no part in. Nota’s landlady, who sneered at Ersilia’s presence earlier, becomes instantly solicitous when she realizes she’s dealing with a celebrity, a person of significance. But when the other players in the drama turn up on Nota’s doorstep — seemingly taking up their roles only when they’re noticed by others — they dispute Ersilia’s facts and impugn her motives.
Full of guilt and remorse, Ersilia’s ex-lover, the hotheaded Franco (vigorously played by Peter Rini), abandons his current fiancee and pledges to marry Ersilia. Recoiling at his touch, she protests that she is no longer the girl who’d fallen in love with him. The trials of life have transformed them both. How can two such strangers marry? What she doesn’t tell him he soon discovers himself — that Ersilia had subsequently taken up with her employer, the consul Grotti (Michel R. Gill), who next descends upon Ersilia, alternately badgering her for lying to the press and imploring her to weep with him over the lost child they both loved — and their culpability in her death. Nota himself, acted with blithe, blustery knowingness by Benzali, watches with detached amusement as the pitiful heroine he thought he had comfortably defined morphs into something altogether more mysterious. “I thought she was my creation; I was hers,” he laughs.
Director Rando can’t always find the right pacing and tone for a play that must simultaneously unfold as a romantic potboiler, a near farcical comedy, a tale of suspense and a meditation on the slippery qualities of perception. Some scenes crackle with authentic emotional heat, particularly the charged encounter between an agonized Ersilia and Grotti, who is played with electric conviction by Gill. Others limp by leaving us clucking at Pirandello’s baldly portentous dialogue and hardly flawless construction (the role of a reporter seems entirely extraneous, for instance).
But the play’s emotional center — Sorvino’s Ersilia — always holds firm. Sorvino begins the play by presenting Ersilia as an emotional blank page desperate to be written on, softly mourning her own worthlessness in the eyes of a world that has used and discarded her. In the early scenes, she’s like a frightened, sickly deer. But as the tug of war for the meaning of her life takes hold, Ersilia’s own integrity comes vibrantly to the fore, even if it’s an integrity born only of suffering. “I’ve earned my right to exist,” she pleads early on, and the play ends with that statement’s pitiful corollary — she’s earned her right not to exist, too. Sorvino’s unfailingly clear and honest rendering of Ersilia’s emotional storms ends in a no less affecting air of wrung-out defeat. Was the newspaper tale that set the play in motion only a desperate bid to clothe a hard-earned death in meaning? If so it only brought her more life, more suffering. In the end she’s happy to forgo the consolation of significance — ready to die naked, without a life story at all.