Judi Dench’s Filumena Marturano learns to cry at the end of “Filumena,” and so persuasive does Dench make the thawing of her character that an audience is tempted to join in the tears. Much of the production up until that point is enough to prompt outbursts of a different sort, namely that an evening so promising on paper should fall so flat on stage. At this moment in a heady career, Dench elicits about as much good will as any British thesp alive. Sadly, however, “Filumena” needs all the empathy its star can draw from an audience to enable a short and slight play to make even the slightest of sense.
What’s missing from Eduardo de Filippo’s 1946 “Filumena” — or at least from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s peculiar if vigorous new version of it — is the actual subject of the play: the awakening of its eponymous heroine, a onetime Neapolitan prostitute who in middle age uses every available ruse to constitute a family from numerous, apparently irreconcilable sources.
Onstage at the Piccadilly as the latest entry in Peter Hall’s ongoing repertory season is the outline of the play instead of the play itself: The evening, tellingly, begins in medias res and more or less proceeds that way throughout. By the end, one yearns to dramatize the ellipses between the scenes, since what’s on view seems either unearned or emotionally opaque.
The situation might be improved if director Hall had a better handle on a play that marked a London triumph for Joan Plowright in 1977 as staged by Franco Zeffirelli. (The same venture was short-lived on Broadway.) Part crude farce, part Strindbergian battle of wills, “Filumena” gives us the sketch of a provocative and moving work that, at least in 1998, would seem to defy any company to flesh it out. (Maria Tucci had a go last year Off Broadway under James Naughton’s direction.)
Filumena’s whorish past, for instance, sits oddly with the humorless scold on view in the first two scenes, an illiterate trickster who rises from her apparent deathbed to force the hand in marriage of her money-minded consort of 25 years, Domenico Soriano (Michael Pennington), a 56-year-old with his own designs on a youngster half his age.
Looking like Miss Havisham, an unflatteringly wigged Dench is so bossy and crisp that one wonders how this Filumena ever saw the light of day as a lady of the night. Although we’re meant to believe that she’s a long-suffering near-saint, both the character — and, unusually, the performer — come across as shrill.
Things improve once Dench changes costumes (and wigs), and Filumena starts to melt. Possessed of a second bombshell relating to her three children, one of whom (she won’t say which, so as to avoid favoritism) is Domenico’s own son, Filumena sheds her termagant’s skin to confess to a love and familial ardor that reposition the actress at her best. Presumably, her quasi-martyred Marturano represents a beneficent spiritual force up against the materialistic Domenico, though one could argue that the transformation in fact only relocates Filumena as the hoariest (excuse the pun) of cliches — a hooker, albeit aging on this occasion, with a heart of gold.
The play has long been an Italian favorite, having spawned the ever-popular 1964 Loren-Mastroianni film “Marriage Italian Style.” Hall’s production accommodates the locale in John Gunter’s elegant and airy high-walled set, enticingly lit to match by Martin Hazlewood. But whatever steps Dench’s definably husky-voiced robustness makes toward Continental inflections — she suggests the region by dint of volatility, not vowels — are not equaled by an exaggerated Pennington, who drops any attempt at a regional accent after about his third sentence. Playing a cartoonishly contrasted trio of sons, Laurence Mitchell, John Gordon-Sinclair and Jason Watkins reap diminishing returns, though Wertenbaker gets some comic mileage out of the trio’s familial hellos and goodbyes.
In the end, such stage shenanigans pale next to what matters most, as Filumena late in life finds herself reborn. That comparable rebirths have been a constant of Dench’s career lends intermittent power to a play that only belatedly releases the heartfelt affect of an actress to whom the audience long ago surrendered its heart.