The main problem with having a play populated by insane people is they tend to be monumentally self-centered characters, eschewing the emotional and conversational give and take essential to communication and plot development.

This article was corrected on April 25, 2002.

The main problem with having a play populated by insane people is they tend to be monumentally self-centered characters, eschewing the emotional and conversational give and take essential to communication and plot development. Juan Carlos Malpeli’s highly stylized theatrical riff on the 19th century Sardou drama “La Tosca” (the basis of the Puccini opera) offers a colorful menagerie of lunatics who have gathered to tell the tragic tale of the beautiful Floria Tosca at the behest of its star, Alessandra Mantero (Christine Kludjian). Despite Malpeli’s imaginative staging and a talented, hard-working ensemble, the production collapses under the weight of a monotonous series of hyperemotional, agenda-driven monologues that have no evolution and offer no resolution.

The production begins on a promising note as Mantero’s Toska oozes melodramatic passion as she pleads for her lover Mario’s life with Baron Scarpia, played to the villainous hilt by Mantero’s theatrical partner, Fulvio Calamandrei (Frederick Lankau). Once she has tricked the Baron into releasing Mario, then killed him with a knife, Tosca rushes down to the dungeons to inform Mario of the prearranged subterfuge that will gain his freedom. Unfortunately for the actress Mantero, inmate/actor Raffa (Carlos Colunga), who is playing Mario, and the other sanity-challenged players in her drama refuse to stick to the script as each goes off on a personal tangent that he or she proclaims to be the true story of Tosca.

Theatrical pizzazz abounds as inmates Ricardo (Malpeli), Antonio (Matthew Watkin), Delia (Marialaura Oddone), Lidia (Clytie Lane), Normo (Ernesto Rowe) and Perico (Damian Delgado) outdo each other to command the stage while revealing the nightmarish secrets of their individual lives.

Even Mantero’s colorless, drudge of an assistant Laura (Melissa Marks) becomes emboldened enough to unleash her long-repressed theatrical passions as she transforms herself into a rip-roaring Salome of the seven veils who has her way with an effectively wrought head of John the Baptist.

Kludjian is impressive as the comically declamatory Mantero. Sneering at the “method” stylings of other performers, she proclaims that all an actor needs is “gesture, movement and a good stage presence.” She is matched by Lankau’s haughty but always inebriated Fulvio, who never seems to be quite sure of what is happening around him.

The rest of the ensemble is equal to the task, but its efforts are sabotaged by Malpeli’s lack of a clear objective. The show’s less than satisfactory resolution confirms everything that happened on stage was inconsequential empty illusion.

One of the more positive aspects of this production is Malpeli’s highly surrealistic, multilevel production design, highlighted brilliantly by the lighting of Carlos Colunga. It’s too bad the show doesn’t come up to the standards of its environment.

Toska

Stage Lee Theater; 49 seats; $15 top

Production

The Group at Strasberg September Co. presentation of a play in one act. Written and directed by Juan Carlos Malpeli.

Creative

Sets, Malpeli; lights, Carlos Colunga; costumes, Jean Lee. Opened March 29, 2002, reviewed March 30; closes April 28. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Fulvio Calamandrei/Baron Scarpia - Frederick Lankau Raffa - Carlos Colunga Ricardo - Juan Carlos Malpeli Antonio - Matthew Watkin Laura - Melissa Marks Delia - Marialaura Oddone Lidia - Clytie Lane Normo - Ernesto Rowe Nurse - Jeanne Christine Kludjian - Madame Alessandra Mantero/Tosca & Perico - Damian Delgado
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