In the final few moments of the 85-minute play “Venecia,” the blind, aged madam of a tacky Argentine bordello (Chita Rivera) returns to the city of amore and is swept into the arms of a former lover for a passionate tango. As the flickering embers of a long-ago romance find new life, if only in memory, Rivera and co-star Tom Flynn work ardently to justify the often strained preceding charade. This first play by Jorge Accame has been adapted and staged by vet playwright-director Arthur Laurents for its U.S. premiere at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse. The play has been produced extensively in several South American countries and is skedded for forthcoming turns in Greece and France, but its folksy charm and ribald humor appear to have lost something in the translation.
Rivera is La Vieja (“the old lady”), a blind elderly madam who established a brothel in Jujuy in the mountains of northern Argentina, where one can get a quickie for 6 pesos. La Vieja, we learn, opened the brothel many years earlier with the stolen savings of a former Italian lover. At her retirement, La Vieja longs to return to Venice, to seek out Don Giacomo (Flynn) in order to beg forgiveness and find repentance for her sins before she dies.
While her stable of three squabbling prostitutes would like to finance her trip to Italy, they cannot come up with sufficient funds for the journey. With the help of Chato (Paolo Andino), apparently their only customer, the girls devise a plan to dupe the blind old madam into thinking she is flying to Venice.
In the sunny courtyard of the dilapidated bordello — nicely designed by James Youmans — they stack boards, crates and chairs to assimilate first an airplane, and later a gondola.
While the charade may be a whimsical stretch for some, the play takes its cue from the literature of Latin American folk fantasy, in which florid imagination is a prerequisite.
In an apparent attempt to create the lazy climate of a tiny mountain village, Laurents’ staging gets off to an atmospheric yet sluggish start.
The bawdy humor of the scrapping prostitutes — played with spunky fervor by Catherine Curtin, Joanna Glushak and Dana Brooke — never quite hits the catty comic mark.
With an infectious boost from composer Andrew Lippa and musical staging by Luis Perez, Laurents’ soaring sense of romanticism is saved for the finale.
In her fleeting moments onstage, Rivera invests the charade with a delightful, dotty air as she pokes around with a cane, bumping into walls. But it’s only her bewitching closing metamorphosis that makes the heart swell. The familiar sorcery of Rivera’s skill triumphs, and her brief dance casts a hypnotic spell.
While “Venecia” is not a musical, its plot and characters cry out for a song or two, and the piece could be nicely enhanced and extended with a full score. The incidental music is a flavorful source of atmosphere, as well as a crucial part of the coda, those final moments that are so infectiously captivating.