Joan Plowright enters cautiously in “Absolutely! (perhaps),” the Franco Zeffirelli play reteaming a defining film and theater partnership that began 29 years ago. (Counting their current assignment, the actress and her director have worked together six times.) And well Plowright’s Signora Frola might tread a wary path through the landmine of truth, falsehood and evasion that is Luigi Pirandello’s 1917 play — known initially as “Right You Are (If You Think You Are)” and seen here in a witty and playable new version from Martin Sherman (“Bent,” “The Boy From Oz”). Surrounded by hostile townspeople hellbent on gossip, Signora Frola has survived an earthquake, only to confront the sort of tremors that don’t subside — the suffering caused by a life that could drive one mad. Or maybe not.
It’s probably evident by now that “Absolutely! (perhaps)” is hardly the lightest of West End nights out, and the presence of Pirandello in the commercial theater itself gives cause for cheer. That much needs to be remembered during those passages, especially during the first act, when the moment-to-moment dynamics of the textual absurdism begin to pall.
But come the second act, and Pirandello — true to form — makes a matter of life and death out of the very issue of identity. Is the mysterious Signora Ponza (Hilary Tones) really Signora Frola’s daughter, or has she in fact died, only to be resurrected in her increasingly deranged mother’s mind’s eye? “I am whomever you believe me to be,” the young woman calmly remarks. In other words, right you are — if you think you are.
Devotees of Pirandello’s better-known “Six Characters in Search of an Author” will have been down this particular gamesman’s path before and will be acquainted with a level of philosophical inquiry that demands a belief, as is stated in the second act, in both black and white. What is an unsuspecting audience to make of all this? Pirandello helpfully provides a surrogate spectator in Lamberto Laudisi (Oliver Ford Davies), the play’s resident moral arbiter whose savage cackle rings down the curtain on both acts. “This doesn’t make any sense,” Laudisi asserts challengingly at the start, as the rumors and scuttlebutt swirl around on the topic of the ravaged Frola and her apparent — but possibly not — son-in-law, Ponza (Darrell D’Silva).
And for much of the opening act, one wonders whether Frola and Ponza will ever get to have their say, insofar as their absences from the stage are given over to bickering sets of neighbors who offer comic relief (Brid Brennan’s Signora Cini gets a running joke in the mere saying of her name) and some fairly unattractive 1960s costumes. (Didn’t Anna Carteret’s knee-high leather boots go out with “The Avengers”?)
But once Plowright enters, her deliberate gait suggesting a galleon in stately sail, the text closes in on the three points of a triangle — Frola, Ponza and his wife — whose various perspectives get a hefty workout. Think of a kind of existentialist point/counterpoint, and you begin to get the flavor of an evening that may sound too heady by half but is actually quite brisk, boasting as a bonus the odd level of audience participation. Or, you’ll forgive me, not.
Signora Frola is hardly the most taxing role in the world, and one has every right to wish Plowright had chosen something that asked more of her for her first London stage venture in some 13 years. In the larger part, Ford Davies shoves his hands in the pockets of his cardigan (I could do without him sticking out his tongue at the audience to ask, “Am I you, or are you me?”) and shuffles splenetically about, pointing an accusatory finger at the balcony and effecting variations on the bemused quizzicality that he perfected some time back in “Racing Demon.”
Among the rest, the company strike what individual notes they can, whether that consists of Carteret making hay of a talent for prepositions (“for,” she says, “as opposed to to”) or the way in which Barry Stanton’s town councillor Agazzi can get a laugh on the simple words, “very calm.” (So does Jeffry Wickham as the Mayor, who holds to the belief that “imprisoning your wife doesn’t mean you’re mad.”)
Zeffirelli, clearly, is on comfortable terrain, and his production betrays no sense of the slackening pace one might expect from a man who recently turned 80. The only insuperable misstep is the maestro’s own design for the play, a hideous grid-like concoction of tiles, reflecting glass and cinema seats, which turns the Wyndham’s stage (where members of the audience are seated, as well) into a combination movie theater and courtroom that is a trial to look at — and drearily un-Italianate, in the bargain. Ah, for the kind of Almeida chic one could imagine expended on a venture that is different, certainly, and intriguing without ever establishing itself as essential. So should you see this play? Absolutely! Perhaps.