As the adage goes, things come in threes. Three blind mice, three musketeers, third time’s the charm. Although he is better known for his musical Nine, when it comes to an evening of theater, Mario Fratti perfects the trio model. Three dramas, each about the length of a TV show, with similar style and pacing, feel custom built for the American attention span. Like most Thursday night line-ups on a major network, they are stories about white Middle Americans, and attended by primarily the same demographic. Set amidst the backdrop of Leonard Cohen’s unmistakable baritone, the plays exhibit remarkable polish, and could very easily be filmed and watched on a screen. They employ a classic, time-tested Naturalism that is comforting as it is easily digested. Theatre for a New City’s patent leather chairs almost begin to feel like the broken-in recliner when sipping the glass of wine purchased in the lobby, and permitted in the house. What distinguishes Fratti’s Trio’s as a theatrical event is the skillful use of one small stage to tell three very different stories. Director, Stephen Morrow skillfully splits the stage into three sections, forcing each of the plays into one cramped room, and containing the tension inside. Nearly pitch-perfect casting choices make an exceptionally strong ensemble able to deliver the text with ease and resonance. Sitting no more than 15 feet away from the actors, we are grateful for their subtlety.
The first play, Anniversary, opens to a familiar tableau, “The Expected Dinner Guest.” From actor, Patrick McCarthy’s rattling fingers, to the formal presentation of the table set for two, everything immediately registers as a highly anticipated ceremony in which everything must go right. His guest, played by Jennifer Loryn, slinks into her seat. He greets her breathlessly, “my love!” She replies frigid and businesslike: “Daddy.” Watching their conversation is like being in the backseat of a car going from 50 to 90 to 110 mph. You don’t know where you’re going, but you know it can’t end well. The Servant, played by Sean Phillips stands by listening quietly as the father’s interrogation becomes increasingly intense, especially concerning her love life, undercutting his paternal relationship with a darker agenda. Jean Genet would approve of the dangerous trap that they set for each other through gendered role-play, providing suspense for the audience. We see their relationship literally distort into something else entirely. When he tells her, “I need a woman who can be everything to me,” we realize this is no longer a father speaking. Although his desperation gives her the upper hand throughout most of the action, it is in the final sequence that the power dynamic radically shifts, and we recognize all three characters sordid motives.
The second play, Missionaries employed simple but effective design, such as crucifixes made of bound reeds to convey the specific aesthetic of Western Christianity imposed on an African country. In this piece, Fratti offers a redefinition of Catholic guilt. The setting is a missionary outpost in rural Africa, and the plot revolves around a Priest’s love affair. Yet, the play manages to avoid any of our established references to the church sex scandal, or the debate of religious neo-colonialism. The drama is a personal crisis of individual need versus collective mission. Father Edwards, played by Chris Kerson, has been in Africa for four years, Sister Caterina, for ten. She has accepted her place as an outsider. His search for comfort in this foreign territory has led him to betray his commitment, and as he tries to justify his actions to her with, “we are only humans.” She clarifies, “with a mission.” They remind us that in the Catholic dogma, peace is synonymous with obedience. Through her reaction, we realize only two forces could allow someone to remain unfazed in the disaster that unfolds: a deeply rooted sense of purpose or oppression. Rose Gregorio’s performance expertly walks the line between these two motivations. Edwards is clearly unraveling and losing his ability to maintain peaceful in the face of personal crisis, while Caterina looks calamity in the eye without blinking. Fratti brilliantly engages the Catholic vocabulary with his characters’ in a way that rings true, and gives renewed significance to the colloquial “Mea Culpa” and “Oh my God.”
Just as Fratti showed his talent for adapting the language of Catholicism for the stage, the third play in his series, Blindness, seamlessly weaves the pro-American vocabulary of the post September 11th media into his character’s words. We observe that military families in particular, out of their need to feel connected to a greater sense of purpose have grasped onto this language to justify their implicitly in the war. In the Anderson’s living room, emotions run high when Brian, the Iraq war veteran pays a visit to the family of his deceased friend. Brian tells his friend’s father and brother “I think he was 100% proud American.” Mr. Anderson, a Vietnam vet played by Joe Ambrose, tells him “you’re a hero.” We become aware of the generational divide between Vietnam and Iraq veterans thought the two are often drawn in comparison due to their shared unpopularity. Having had his optical nerve destroyed by shrapnel, Brian only finds comfort with people he already knows because he has a memory of their face. Like those affected by PTSD, blindness similarly turns his memory into his reality. Anderson and Brian mark two different points in the chronology of PTSD. As Brian, Brendan McDonough makes specific physical choices such as remaining standing with military posture while everyone sits, and making eye contact with a point off stage, that effectively communicates his character’s past and condition. His longing for his lost sight pierces through his words revealing a gaping emptiness inside him as he tries to articulate his loss. Through his characters, Fratti asks us to consider the nature of sacrificing for one’s country as a kind of selective blindness.
Mario Fratti’s TRIO runs though October 24, 2010 at Theatre for a New City. 155 1st Avenue New York, NY. (212) 254-1109