Among the credits for the new production of “Filumena,” a 1946 comedy by Eduardo de Filippo, an “Italian consultant” is listed but heaven only knows what she did. Clearly intending to banish the hand-waving “Italian” of stereotype, director Michael Attenborough has moved so far in the opposite direction that the anodyne result lacks any distinguishing flavor. Attenborough presumably chose the play for the potential of its title role, played here with punch by Samantha Spiro. But whenever she’s off-stage, tension slumps leaving an evening as slack as it is slight.
Filumena (Spiro) is a 45-year-old Neapolitan former whore who, having lived for 25 years as the underappreciated lover of wealthy Domenico (Clive Wood), has hoodwinked him into marrying her on her deathbed. At the top of the play, he’s ranting because he’s discovered that far from being on the brink of death, she’s bursting with health. And, if things weren’t bad enough, what is he to do with the surprise information that she has three sons, and that one of them may be his?
Desporting herself about the convincing walled courtyard of Robert Jones’s set, sunnily lit by Tim Mitchell, Spiro is nothing short of a dynamo. Her earthbound physicality and fierce growl allow audiences to sense not just the ruthlessness of her determination but the grinding poverty that determined her early life. The no-nonsense briskness of her delivery drives speeches and scenes forwards and, crucially, buys Spiro time to pause to allow audiences to reason through the silences she so effectively places.
The downside to this is that everyone else tries and fails to match her rhythm. But where her pauses are earned and charged with tension, theirs feel dragged-out and self-regarding.
Since everyone and everything in the household revolves around the actions and activities of rich and powerful Domenico, the actor who plays him needs authority. Wood’s confused physicality speaks volumes about how miscast he is. One moment adopting grand gestures, the next suppressing them, he winds up looking ill-at-ease and unfocused, which further deflates the atmosphere.
With insufficient weight in the role, the relationship with Filumena makes little sense and the dramatic stakes never climb. The supporting cast are not helped by writing that encourages them to deliver characteristics rather than characters. The playing of the three potential sons is congenial but their place within the structure is too schematic. Other de Filippo plays harness properly earned sentiment. This, however, is merely sentimental.