“To hell with my virginity,” says a frustrated ingenue in the opening lines of David Grimm’s rude, crude and deliciously lewd comedy, “The Miracle of Naples,” premiering at Beantown’s Huntington Theater Company. It’s an unusual twist on the usually delicate flowers heroines traditionally are portrayed as in 16th-century settings — and it acts as fair warning for what the play has in store. When anal intercourse with the fair lady becomes a pivotal plot point, all hell is sure to follow.
This comedic world in extremis is what powers Grimm’s naughty, nasty and uneven work, helmed with high and low style by Huntington a.d. Peter DuBois and performed by an appealing cast, led by Dick Latessa as Don Bertolino Fortunato, the ever-hustling head of a traveling commedia troupe.
Never pushing for a laugh, Latessa gives a sublime perf as the filthy-mouthed, world-weary, rustic-tough guy witnessing the end of his company’s touring days. It’s a master class in comic ease and timing, by way of the Italian Catskills.
Don Bertolino’s rag-tag troupe is made up his diminutive daughter La Piccola (Lucy DeVito), randy nephew Tristano (Pedro Pascal), Tristano’s not-too-bright pal Matteo (Gregory Wooddell) and Giancarlo (Alfredo Narciso), a handsome actor who longs to be a writer. When they land in Naples, they encounter lusty virgin Flaminia (Christina Pumariega) and her fiercely protective nurse Francescina (Alma Cuervo).
Quickly, all libidos break free. Though pining for Giancarlo, Flaminia succumbs to the sexual advances of Tristano and Matteo (but remains virginal though a “back-door” technicality). The boys discover the wonders of degeneracy, while even old flames Francescina and the Don reignite.
But in Grimm’s old Naples, everything is fraught, as matters of the heart battle with pleasures of the flesh, life’s purpose becomes at odds with one’s mortality, and — at the end of the day — a plate of lovingly made pasta serves as the essence of everything.
Grimm has a grand time playing with these overripe conflicts as well as traditional theatrical expectations. This world is one where poets can be cads, cynics can be sentimentalists and a simpleton can be the smartest person onstage. The profane and profound best come together when a lonely, randy rogue lets out his, and the play’s, cri de coeur: “Who do you have to fuck to find some love in this world?”
Cast revels in the fun and almost succeeds in filling in the play’s many blank spaces. DeVito shows the same wiseguy comic flair — especially with a delicious throwaway line — as her parents Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. Pumariega and Narciso make the potential lovers both silly and grand. Like Latessa, Cuervo shows her old-pro deadpan chops and Pascal plays sexual desperation, and conflict, with style. Wooddell’s very funny and tender perf gives the production its heart.
But despite the clever script, the energy of the cast and the design elements (Alexander Dodge’s farce-perspective set is another gem), the thematic focus is insufficiently sharp to hold the play together. Also hindering things are stretches when there’s little air left in the comic balloon and all that remain are insults, albeit good ones (“She has a face like a smacked ass”) and retreads of gags, often bad ones. (One loses count of how many times the double-entendre about stuffing a woman’s “ravioli” is used.)
As he showed in “Measure for Pleasure” at the Public three seasons back, Grimm’s ambition is to make crude comedy reach for more than the groin. That he achieves it, even sporadically, is a miracle in itself.